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 – “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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Book review: “Educated” by Tara Westover

Educated imgThis book caused something of a sensation when it was published last year. It is the extraordinary memoir of a young woman who grew up in rural Idaho, as part of a large Mormon family. Nothing too outlandish there until the author begins telling you about the father’s survivalist beliefs (he hoards supplies of food and fuel in their bunker for when catastrophe strikes, as he believes it inevitably will), his Christian fundamentalism (quite extreme beliefs about, for example, what women should wear, that even their fellow Church members find uncomfortable) and the obsessive control he exerts over the rest of the family. The unconventional nature of the family would be enough to make this a fascinating read, but what makes it shocking is the level of violence, of almost sadistic cruelty. Some of is quite hard to read and at times I found myself gasping out loud.

Tara, the author, is the youngest of seven children. The family lives in an isolated area, below Buck’s Peak mountain in Idaho, far from town and the influence of ordinary society. Her father runs his own business making money from scrap metal. He is a powerful patriarchal figure whose word must be obeyed and who has strong conspiracy theory beliefs. He distrusts all figures of authority and all institutions, including the police, doctors and nurses, public officials, banks and school teachers. His children are “home-schooled” (in the loosest sense of the term, since he also believes there is little need for an academic education), have no official records (neither of her parents can be sure exactly how old Tara is or of her birthdate) and never attend a hospital. Tara’s mother becomes a “midwife”; more accurately she is self-educated and self-appointed to attend births in other families with similar distrust of conventional medicine. (Later in the book she begins to develop her own homeopathic remedies which will make the family’s fortune.)

The book is a largely chronological account of Tara’s growing up and her increasing scepticism about her family’s views. She is an intelligent and curious child and inevitably questions some of the beliefs and assumptions underpinning her parents’ beliefs. As she gets occasional glimpses into the lives of others she determines that what she desires most of all is an education in a proper school or college. When one of her brothers manages to achieve this, and encourages her to seek it out for herself also, she makes the necessary arrangements. What seems to me to fuel Tara’s gradual withdrawal from the family, however, is not the desire for an education but an increasing intolerance of the violence experienced by her brothers, at the hands of their father, and that meted out to Tara herself by her brother Shawn, a deeply disturbed individual. The terrible ‘accidents’ that they all endure (even Tara’s mother sustains a head injury in a car crash that leaves her with unspecified brain damage) are the direct result of wilful neglect of normal standards of safety (her father removes all the seatbelts from the family car). Make no mistake, this level of violence and cruelty is all about control and ruling through fear.

Slight spoiler alert: Tara does eventually break free from her family, though it is a difficult journey for her, and she finds herself torn many times between her attachment to her parents and siblings, in spite of everything she has had to endure from them, and her academic ambitions which see her winning scholarships to Cambridge and to Harvard. Her achievements are extraordinary given her background and her lack of formal education. She realises how sheltered her life has been when she stuns a lecture room into dumbstruck silence by asking the teacher what is meant by the term ‘Holocaust’. Adapting to life ‘in the outside world’ is extraordinarily difficult and she often wonders whether it might just have been easier to stay where she was.

I found this both a shocking and a moving read. There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the book; the family has closed ranks around itself and some members have contradicted Tara’s account of events. The author alludes to some of these differences in the notes section and also states at several points throughout that her memory of an event is vague and she is relying on others’ recollections. I felt at times uncomfortable reading the book, it felt voyeuristic. At other times I found myself disbelieving – how could Tara even think about going back to her family after all they had done. It was hard to imagine how she could not see through the lies and the control. But then, on the other hand, this is an account, you could say, of abuse, and of how the victim can be drawn back to the perpetrator. Especially where those perpetrators are her closest family. Without them she has no-one.

Recommended, but not the easiest of reads.

How do you rate Educated?

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Book review – “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin

A few weeks ago I blogged about the 2019 Oscars and identified If Beale Street Could Talk as one of the few literary connections amongst this year’s crop of nominees. It was in fact nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category but lost out to Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman on the night. The book is widely considered to be a classic of 20th century African-American writing.

It is a love story and concerns the relationship between 19 year-old Tish and her 22 year-old lover Fonny, whose baby she is expecting. The couple grew up in Harlem, but Fonny has ambitions of becoming a sculptor and the couple plan to move to Greenwich Village to be among other artists. The story of their love is told mainly through flashbacks, however, as, when the novel opens, Fonny is in jail awaiting trial for rape, having been accused and then identified in a line-up by the Peurto Rican victim.

if beale street could talk imgThe time span of the novel is the duration of Tish’s pregnancy, during which time the couple’s two families set about trying to free Fonny, liaising with his lawyer and pulling together all the money they can to pay Fonny’s legal costs. The lion’s share of this task falls to Tish’s family, who see it as their duty to support their daughter and the father of their grandchild. Fonny’s family, on the other hand is divided; his mother and sisters are deeply confused, ambivalent and disturbed by events effectively disown him. Fonny’s father does engage, supported by Tish’s father, but it is clear he is not really strong enough to cope with the pressure. It falls to Tish’s family to take charge and her mother, Sharon even goes to Peurto Rico, to where the raped woman has fled, to appeal to her to change her testimony, the suspicion being that Fonny was simply served up to her by corrupt police officers. As Tish’s pregnancy progresses, so we follow the legal machinations, the financial pressures faced by all concerned, the effect of prison on Fonny, the artistic soul tortured by his incarceration, and the toll that events take on both families.

It is a tragic story in many ways – no spoiler intended, but events don’t really resolve in the course of the novel – but has also been described as ultimately uplifting because it shows the power of love, not just between a man and a woman, but also within the community and within the family (notwithstanding the dysfunctional nature of Fonny’s family, although the inference here is that his mother’s religious fervour lies at the root of this).  I have not seen the film so I’m not sure how it handles the open nature of the ending.

The other main theme of the novel is, of course, the black experience, and Baldwin was a key figure in mid-20th century civil rights activism in New York. He counted Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Marlon Brando, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg and Miles Davis among his many high-profile friends. It is clear that Fonny has simply been set-up to take the blame for the rape – the woman identified her attacker only as black, and in the line-up that was assembled, Fonny was the only black man present. The cops are clearly out to get him, and any other black man. The judicial system, the penal system and the social and financial system are all stacked against Fonny, against them all, a reflection of how Baldwin saw society at the time.

Although I enjoyed the book, I didn’t find it a particularly easy read. The writing felt a little spiky, uncontrolled (the type that a determined editor might address!), but on the other hand it is spontaneous and vernacular, heart-felt and real. I found the timings difficult to follow at times and the supporting characters not as well-developed as I would have liked. It helps, however, when you understand more about Baldwin and his life. Firstly, he was an essayist, poet, playwright and activist as much as he was a novelist, if not more so, and whilst I do not know his other work, I can see that way of thinking in this novel. I think there are also significant influences from Baldwin’s personal life experience which feature strongly – his relationship with his father (actually his step-father), his sexuality, his struggle to express his art in his youth, growing up as he did in the tough neighbourhood of Harlem, and his religious ambivalence.

This is an intriguing and important book, even though it wasn’t always the easiest read. The love story is powerful and moving and it has certainly made me keen to see the film and to read more of Baldwin’s work, particularly his essays and his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Recommended.

Have you read the book or seen the film? What did you think?

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Book review – “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D Taylor

I chose this book as February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019. The theme for the month was a YA novel. First published in 1976, this rather pre-dates the emergence of the YA genre, so it does not fit quite so comfortably. However, it is a classic and, in my view, essential teenage reading. My edition is published by Puffin and the narrator and main character is a child, but make, no mistake, the themes here are mature and heavyweight.

Roll of Thunder imgRoll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the first of three novels by Mildred D Taylor about the Logan family, black farmers in Mississippi, set in the 1930s. They are poor, but they own their own small piece of land, Grandfather Logan having bought it in the 1880s from local landowner Harlan Granger, much to the chagrin of some of the white locals who still cannot accept the social changes giving black people greater autonomy and rights. Grandfather Logan is now dead and the central character, Cassie, lives on the farm with her parents, her grandmother and three brothers. Despite owning 400 acres, the family still struggles to make ends meet, which is why Cassie’s father works away much of the year, on the railroad construction, and her mother works as a teacher at the local (black) school. All the family contributes to the running of the farm and the income it generates.

The scene is set beautifully, mainly through the four children and in particular, Cassie’s narration. The children have the same worldview of any kids their age, but even at their young age they have a strong awareness of their low status compared to their white counterparts, for example, in the way most of the local white children treat them and how the white kid’s school seems so much better resourced (they even have a bus, while the Logan children have to walk several miles every day). The unfairness is not lost on the children and sometimes they express their sense of injustice in ways that worry the adults, who know that for their own safety they must just keep their heads down and accept the reality. The early chapters set all these conditions in place and the readers is aware of the underlying tensions in the community that might erupt at the slightest provocation.

And that provocation soon comes along. Little Man, the youngest of the Logan children and a very fastidious boy, rejects a book given out to him in class because it is shabby. The books, cast-off by the white’s school as too damaged to use any longer, have been bestowed upon the black children and they are expected to be grateful. Little Man’s rejection of the damaged book is considered an affront too far, even by his teacher (it is interesting how most of the black adults in the book have been rendered completely docile by conditioning and by the threat of retribution if they speak out). For appearance’s sake, the children’s mother has to mete out Little Man’s severe punishment (being beaten), even though it pains her to do so. She decides to cover all of the children’s books, to make them appear fresher, but when this is spotted by the local (white) inspector, it has severe consequences for her too.

A series of other events set off a cascade of problems for the Logan family. For example, when the owner of the local store, upon which they all depend, appears to be treating his black customers unfairly, Cassie’s parents try to set up an arrangement whereby they make collective bulk purchases from a store charging better prices in a neighbouring town and the Logans transport the goods on their wagon. This riles the white community (black people have no right to make such a stand and resist the control being exercised over them) and the family is threatened.

Events take increasingly grave turns and the threat of violence, even death and financial ruin are never very far away. As you would expect from a novel for this age group, crisis is averted when a disaster at the end manages to bring the community back together in the most unexpected way. However, the novel does not shy away from suggesting that a terrible confrontational denouement is merely averted and not truly eliminated. It is happy for now, not happy ever after, as we know from the civil rights history of the USA. By the end of the novel, one thing is for sure and that is that nine year-old Cassie will never see the world in quite the same way again. Events have forced her out of her naïve belief in fairness and into an awareness that life, for her ilk at least, is definitely not fair.

I found this novel really gripping. I loved the characters, the dialogue with and between the children felt very authentic and the writing flows beautifully. It is a packed novel for its 220 pages, dealing with some important issues that will help to illustrate the African-American experience during a dark period in America’s history.

Highly recommended.

If you have read this book, either recently or when you were younger, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Facebook Reading Challenge 2019 – February’s choice

I was in two minds whether to relaunch my online reading challenge for 2019, not least because I am not one of those bloggers who is able to plan and post in a wholly disciplined way (cf. the fact I am posting about February’s choice halfway through the month!) I am a mother of three teenagers, work part-time, blah, blah, blah, I know you’ve heard it all before – we are all busy. I’ve set myself a reading challenge for the past couple of years now, with the aim of trying to expand my reading from my usual genres and authors, and really enjoyed it. Then in 2018 I took it online and set up a Facebook group for others to take part. To my great surprise and pleasure, it was fairly successful and I enjoyed the conversations we had about the books we’d read, even if they weren’t always universally liked – sometimes you can have more to say or more fun commenting on the ones you don’t like.

Towards the end of the year, though, I faltered, both in my regularity of posting and my ability to get through the books I was selecting for us. This was due largely to family pressures and a period of not being very well. I’d more or less decided that I wouldn’t continue the challenge into 2019, until a few members of the group contacted me to say that they had really enjoyed it. Suitably re-motivated, I relaunched for 2019, albeit a little into January…

Roll of Thunder imgIn January the theme was a humorous novel and we read Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outingwhich I reviewed here last week and which, I think it’s fair to say, did not go down a storm! The theme for February is a YA novel and my selection is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor. This was first published in 1976, probably before the concept of the YA genre as we understand it truly existed, so it is perhaps more accurately categorised as a teen novel. It is widely read as part of the KS3 school curriculum I believe.

Set in the Deep South of America during The Great Depression in the 1930s, its themes are challenging, and the threat of, as well as actual, violence, is never very far away. The central character is Cassie Logan, a nine year-old black girl growing up in a small town and gradually learning about ‘how life is’ for people like her. I am well into the book already and am finding it thoroughly gripping. The evocation of time and place is very powerful and the characterisation very strong. I think this one will be more widely enjoyed.

If you would like to join the conversation, it’s not too late to take part. The book is fairly short so you could easily read it in a few sittings (perfect for teenagers!) I will endeavour to post on time at the end of the month to start the discussion!

Happy reading!

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Book review: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

This book has certainly captured headlines since it was published in November. It was abridged and serialised on Radio 4 the week it came out. I caught a couple of the episodes, but this was merely a taster since, having now finished reading it, at over 400 pages, they gave only the very edited highlights. I do not normally go in for celebrity memoirs, and one could be quite cynical about the enormous deal that has been struck by the Obamas and their publishers (though I gather they are donating royalties to charity). However, very early on in the book any cynicism I might have had melted away.  I have no idea what help Michelle had in writing this book, but it does not ‘feel’ ghost-written. Her narrative voice is very authentic – warm and compassionate, the same way that she comes across when she speaks.

becoming imgMy book club chose this for our pre-Christmas read (I’ve only just finished it!) and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s long, and perhaps could have been edited somewhat, but I imagine the main buyers of this book will be Michelle-fans who want as much detail as possible. The first part of the book was, for me, the least engaging. My fellow readers and I were a little surprised to learn that Michelle Robinson did not in fact come from an affluent background. She was a ‘Southsider’ – from a part of Chicago that was fairly blue-collar and largely African-American, and became more so as she grew older and some of the white residents moved out. A picture is painted of a family with strong values around hard work, doing the right thing, caring for others and loyalty to family. Michelle excelled in school through hard work, determination and the support of her parents and attended both Princeton and Harvard Law School. She has never forgotten her humble beginnings, however, and this underpins her commitment to equality and social justice. However, I did feel this part of the book was most descriptive; in the context of the book as a whole I can see why it would have been important to her to put her politics in perspective, but it was a tiny bit…pedestrian?

Michelle met her husband, Barack Obama, while she was working at a law firm in Chicago, and the development of their relationship forms the basis of the second part of the book. It’s a lovely romantic story, and they are clearly deeply committed to one another. However, it did not come without some pain. Much has been made of their difficulties conceiving a child (both daughters were born after IVF treatment) and of their seeking relationship counselling. What I found most interesting, however, was how Michelle has wrestled with and had to reconcile herself to, the role that being the spouse of a high-profile politician, then a Senator, then a President, has meant for her own career ambitions and her life as a parent.

The challenges of this dilemma are thrown into sharpest relief in the later chapters of Part Two where Barack Obama makes his bid for the US Presidency in 2007/8. The way that Michelle was treated is both fascinating and appalling. How she coped is beyond me, and it is to her enormous credit that she was able to rise above the racist and misogynist vitriol that came her way. I suspect those things ultimately made her stronger. Since Barack Obama left office in 2016, there have been calls from many quarters for Michelle to consider running at some point in the future, to which she has repeatedly said she never would (she states this explicitly in the final pages of the book). When you read her personal reflections in the 2008 campaign you can see fully why she is not made for that particular political bear-pit. She is a much better person than that and working towards a bigger picture than the short-termism associated with political elections.

As my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose, the other parts of me were dissolving from view. When I spoke to reporters, they rarely asked about my work. They inserted “Harvard-educated” in their description of me, but generally left it at that. A couple of news outlets had published stories speculating that I’d been promoted at the hospital not due to my own hard work and merit but because of my husband’s  growing political stature, which was painful to read. 

The final part of the book looks at her life in the White House. As she writes in the opening lines:

There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States.

As with most things in her life, Michelle Obama had to find her own way. In some ways that must be a liberating position to be in – having the freedom to write your own job description (the present First Lady has taken a somewhat different approach) – but for Michelle Obama there was the deep hostility she had to contend with, not just the political opposition, but the more personal, racist, misogynist and body-shaming tone she also endured.

I understood…that I’d be measured by a different yardstick. As the only African American First Lady to set foot in the White House, I was “other” almost by default. If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me. 

When the book was published, commentators pounced upon her comments about the present incumbent of the White House, looking for something juicy. Yes, there are some criticisms, as you might expect, and sadly the echo chamber rather defines the politics of the age – most of us prefer to read or listen to people who reflect the views we already hold. But what struck me in fact was the restraint, and the most chilling comment was that Michelle Obama will never forgive Trump and his team for placing the life of her husband and her daughters in danger. This sums up the book, and the woman, for me; it’s family, loved ones, values first, politics second.

If you’re a Michelle fan you’ll love this and have probably read it already anyway! If you’re objective there is still much to enjoy here and there’s no doubting the courage, integrity and sheer grit of the woman. She is undoubtedly a role model to us all.

What did you think of Michelle Obama’s memoir? 

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Man Booker shortlist review #5 – “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner

I have finally finished The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, my penultimate read on this year’s Man Booker shortlist. I blogged last week that had been finding it quite hard-going. I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘difficult’ book, like Everything Under, where it helps to be aware of the Oedipus myth in order to be able to enjoy it. No, I just found the pace of the book very slow and, I’m afraid, uneventful.

The Mars Room imgThe story concerns Romy Hall, a young woman whom we first meet in a prison van en route to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. Romy was convicted of a brutal murder and has been given two life sentences plus six years. Romy worked as a lap dancer at The Mars Room nightclub in San Francisco and it was a former customer at the nightclub that she killed. Romy is at once similar but different to her fellow convicts. For one thing she has a seven year old child, Jackson, whose welfare she becomes increasingly concerned about during her incarceration, and she also completed high school, so she is considerably more educated than many of those around her.

 

Romy quickly finds her way in the prison and most of the book is about prison life, the community, the social norms and the formal and informal rules that dictate life inside. There is also the cast of characters, the gender non-binary, the ambiguous sexualities, the weak and the strong, the hierarchy. The women appear to have two things in common, one implicit, they are mostly racial minorities, the other explicit, they are nearly all poor and of low educational attainment.

To that extent the book is, in my view, largely a political one. The author has insisted this is not the case, preferring to think of it as showing the humanity, the variety of life and the personalities in prisons in America, where society is normally inclined to dehumanise and to view homogeneously, the prison population. However, I think the political message is inescapable – that prison is a dumping ground for the poor and under-educated that society does not know what to do with. Kushner is also exposing the twisted logic of differing sentences for similar crimes. I found the comparison of the crimes committed by Stanville’s residents to the killings of civilians by the American state in Iraq, and the notion of double standards, a little clumsy, but she has a point.

The book is not just about Romy and prison life, there are the back stories too: the unsavoury characters both Romy and some of the other women knew before they ended up in prison, many of them no better than the convicted women, and the events and circumstances of their lives, which most of us will never experience. This is the world of an American underclass. An underclass which usually ends up in the corrupt and failing (in Kushner’s view) penal system. There is also the character of Hauser, the prison teacher who Romy hopes might help her find out what has happened to Jackson. It is strictly against the rules for Hauser to do this, but there is something about Romy which appeals to him, and he breaks with procedure when he finds himself inexplicably attracted to her. (Spoiler alert: I was hoping this storyline might go further but it doesn’t). Hauser represents grey, upstanding, dutiful middle America which wants to do the right thing, recognising that some of those in jail have some good qualities, but which is clueless and naïve, and which cannot deal with the brutal realities of prisoners and prison life.

This is an exposing book and Kushner spent a lot of time inside jails in America, talking to women prisoners, trying to understand their lives and their perspectives, and for that she is to be commended. Whilst I appreciated what the author is trying to do here, and certainly it was an eye opener, for me the book didn’t go anywhere. Some have described the ending, where Romy is driven to extreme action on account of her son, as intense and thrilling. For me it wasn’t. I found it anti-climactic.

The book reminded me of those Louis Theroux documentaries, where he went into American jails, and talked to prisoners. The people he met were a complex mix of terrifying, troubled, under-educated and deeply in need. And mostly black and Hispanic. The book is a bit like that, but, for me, with not quite enough of a story going on.

Recommended if you like Louis Theroux documentaries about American jails.

Have you read The Mars Room or any other of the books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist? If so, I’d love to hear how you’re getting on.

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Theatre Review: “Hamilton”, London

I first became aware of the Broadway show Hamilton when we visited family in the US in 2016. I was told that if (when!) this came to London I should beg, steal or borrow tickets because it was sensational. Yes, I said, politely, thinking that a show about the Founding Fathers of America probably would not do as well in the UK. It has. And it is. Sensational.

Hamilton 1My youngest daughter, a keen singer, started getting into the show a year or so ago. She has been listening to and singing along to the soundtrack almost continuously ever since. When it was her birthday earlier this year I decided to get her tickets. I was astonished to discover how difficult these were to obtain (and how expensive!), so she has been waiting patiently for almost six months to enjoy her birthday gift. Last week, during half term, we travelled to London to see the show. It was worth the wait and she promptly declared that it was the best experience of her life. For me, seeing her enjoying something so much and how she has engaged so wholeheartedly with the story, the music and the ethos of the production, has the been the greatest pleasure.

I’ve seen a few musicals over the years, and many of the biggest ones, but they would not normally be my first choice for theatre. I prefer drama. Also, I find that some of these productions, when they have had very long runs, can become tired. Hamilton has been at the Victoria Palace for over a year now and it certainly has not run out of steam. The show was a tour de force from the opening bars to the final curtain. I must also say that, knowing the songs as well as I do (they’ve been in my background for months!) added to my enjoyment.

I knew next to nothing about Alexander Hamilton the man. He was the brains behind the United States financial system, the first Treasury Secretary, influential in George Washington’s presidency and founder of the national bank. As an orphan who climbed his way to the top of politics, he embodies the American dream of self-made success. He was killed in a duel by his long-time rival Aaron Burr in his late forties. Quite a life.

As you may know, Hamilton has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, mostly for its originality. The music of the show incorporates rap, hip-hop, R&B and soul, unusual for this type of production, and it is both refreshing and memorable. It is also well-known for its colour-conscious casting of non-white actors. Whilst none of the main protagonists in the story were actually people of colour, the aim was to draw attention to how black and non-white history is so often under-acknowledged and under-discussed. It seemed appropriate that we went to see the show during black history month which aims to redress that balance.

So, a stunning show that I enjoyed much more than I expected to. I now consider myself a fan and would definitely see it again. The energy of the show left both my daughter and I on a real high.

Have you seen Hamilton? If so, what did you think?

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Man Booker Review #2 – “The Long Take” by Robin Robertson

Time for my second Man Booker shortlist review and of the three I have read so far, my favourite. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did; the subject matter – a D-Day veteran suffering from PTSD – did not appeal particularly and when I saw the format – extended verse – I found my heart sinking slightly. That’s totally unfair, and I can in no way begin to justify that reaction other than to say I just love a good solid novel! I am delighted to say I was completely wrong, and I think it’s great when our prejudices and preferences are tested and we are pleasantly surprised.

The Long Take imgThe central character is Walker, a man from rural Nova Scotia, who fought with the Allied forces in the D-Day landings. He has seen and experienced terrible events, death and injury that most of us can barely even imagine, and he survived. After the end of the war, he goes back to the United States and finds himself living among the homeless in New York City. The book is divided into four sections: 1946, 1948, 1951 and 1953 each set in a different US city (though Los Angeles is the setting for both 1948 and 1953). As he reflects on his experiences, it becomes clear that it was impossible for him to return home to Canada. He reminisces about the quiet, gentle life he led there, where the rhythms of the seasons, the dependence on the harvests of the seas, and community events (such as village hall dances) dominate everyone’s existence. It’s as if the contrast between that life and the brutality he witnessed in the war means he fears contaminating the innocence of those he has left behind. He can never go back, never unsee what he has seen, and those he once loved will never be able to understand how he has been changed.

In New York City, Walker lives among the vulnerable and the dispossessed. He is already suffering the effects of his PTSD:

A dropped crate or a child’s shout, or car

                Backfiring, and he’s in France again’

                That taste in his mouth. Coins. Cordite. Blood.”

In 1948 Walker moves to Los Angeles and begins working on a city newspaper, initially writing film reviews, but then, as his profile grows and he earns respect among fellow journalists for his writing, he is given weightier projects. He persuades his Editor to let him do an extended investigation into homelessness. This takes him to San Francisco in 1951, and then back to LA in 1953. Walker is an observer, he seems to move on the periphery. He earns the trust of the cast of characters he befriends on the streets and his own personal trauma enables him to empathise with them:

                “People; just like him.

                Having given up the country for the city,

                Boredom for fear, the faces

                Gather here in these streets

                Like spectators in a dream.

                They wanted to be anonymous

                Not swallowed whole, not to disappear.”

The final part of the book is the most intensely drawn. Walker recalls the devastation of older parts of the city, the traditional buildings, to make way for modern concrete highways and car parks, fuelled by corruption in the city authorities and mafia money. In the process many of the itinerant population were made homeless from whatever meagre shelter they had created for themselves and effectively thrown onto the scrap heap. The account of the destruction of the soul of the city is juxtaposed with vivid and detailed descriptions of the war:

                “The side of a building fell like a tree.

                Then the rest of it just collapsed

                In on itself, immediately lost

                In a dense cloud of brick dust;

                The delay of the noise and shock waves.

                There was an army there, pulling down everything north of 1st.

                …

The sound of mortars like gravel on a metal slide; a running tear. Right next to me, young Benjamin took some shrapnel in the throat: his windpipe torn open, so he’s gargling blood and staring at me, fumbling at his neck like he feels his napkin is slipping.”

What is fascinating and moving about the work is how Walker’s wartime experiences have made him more human, more empathic, whereas those who live oblivious are consumed by inhumanity, lack of feeling for others and, in the case of the authorities, cruelty. America is failing those in need in the pursuit of economic growth, greed and modernism.

I thought I would find the verse structure annoying, but it is beautiful, as is the economy of Robertson’s language. It perfectly suits the slightly ethereal, enigmatic central character and his own relatively silent presence in the communities in which he moves and verse provides a way of creating the vivid imagery of his wartime recollections.

I recommend this book highly. Don’t be put off if you are not used to reading verse, you will get used to it quickly. An amazing piece of work.

What is your favourite book on the Man Booker 2018 shortlist so far?

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