More book stuff:The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot): This is our Book Group’s latest book. It’s a true-story account of a poor, black, American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, aged 31. She was the mother of six children and, outside her immediate family, was unknown to the rest of the world. However, through her cancer cells (taken without her knowledge for medical research, she achieved “immortality”. More than 50 million tonnes(!) of HeLa* cells (*their medical name) have been grown over the past six decades in the course of developing a multimillion-dollar industry (and contributing to 5 of the past 10 Nobel Prizes for Medicine in the process) and yet her family knew nothing of this until more than twenty years after her death. I found this a truly remarkable, humbling, moving account of racism and injustice – brilliantly told and researched by Rebecca Skloot (who spent a decade working with family members and interviewing hundreds of people in the process). A few weeks ago, I described Laurent Binet’s “HHhH” as one of my best books of 2013… but I honestly think Skloot’s book surpasses it by some way! You MUST read it (despite its length!).
My Father’s Fortune (Michael Frayn): This is a beautiful memoir of Frayn’s father (written at the request of his daughters, “wondering about their origins”). In trying to do so, he realises just how much he’s forgotten and how much of his background he’d never bothered to question. Fortunately, he was able to enlist the help of his surviving relatives (a good reminder for all families!). His father, Tom, came from impoverished circumstances, married his childhood sweetheart Violet and became a travelling salesman. It’s funny (with a lovely sense of irony) and moving. His father’s life is not particularly exceptional and that’s what provides much of the book’s charm.
After A Funeral (Diane Athill): This is a work of non-fiction (that took place in the mid-1960s) and tells the story of how and why a talented writer came to kill himself. The man was an Egyptian in exile; Athill was immediately captivated by him and he moved into her flat (as a lodger). He was a gambler, a drinker and a womaniser… and impossible to live with. It’s an incredibly tender, honest and painful account of the three years they spent together before he finally committed suicide (I’m not giving anything away here – Athill mentions it in chapter one and it also appears on the book cover!). A powerful, haunting book.
The Four Elements (John O’Donohue): O’Donohue is a huge hero of mine and I just love his wisdom and his writing. This book (originally four pamphlets) reflects on nature through the elements of air, water, fire and stone and explores a range of themes relating to the way we live our lives today. For once, I’m sad to admit that I found this the least compelling book of his that I’ve read (and I’ve read them all – apart from his two poetry books). There, I’ve said it!
The Rain Before It Falls (Jonathan Coe): This is a sad, often moving story of mothers and daughters through three generations. It’s about relationships, families and honesty… amongst other things. Some of the story is told by a dying woman in her seventies speaking into a hand-held primitive tape recorder as she endeavours to pass on what she knows of a family’s history. At times, I found this “storytelling device” just too artificial and I also felt that the ending was rather too contrived. Nevertheless, it’s a well-written, powerful, rather beautiful book.