The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This would make a wonderful title for a novel, but this book is a work of non-fiction. It reads as easily as a novel, though, and is so fascinating that it kept me reading late into the night so that I have been waking up  grumpy and tired in the mornings. Luckily it has been holidays, although my puppy doesn’t seem to care about holidays.

Briefly, the story is about cancerous cells that were taken from a woman’s cervix at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the 1950s. This woman was Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from the Southern tobacco farms, and the cells were taken without her knowledge. She died soon after they were taken and no-one in her family was told about them. They proved to be hardy cells that thrived in laboratory surroundings and multiplied rapidly. The medical scientist who took them called them the HeLa cells. From this ‘immortal’ tissue, cells were used for a myriad of scientific advancements, the most notable being the polio vaccine. Billions have been bought and sold over the decades and they are still available today.

What the author, Rebecca Skloot, does – and she does it so skilfully – is go behind the story of the cells to find out who Henrietta Lacks was and what happened to her family. Through her investigations, she meets Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and much of Henrietta’s story is divulged through Rebecca’s time with Deborah and her siblings. The story exposes an incredible tale of racism, medical ethics, deception, poverty and cruelties that humans can inflict upon each other.

What made this book work for me is that, on one level, Rebecca Skloot gives an easily accessible explanation of cellular medicine and science, while on the other she tells a tale of human suffering and greed with a degree of lightness, despite the heavy subject. She writes it so well that I didn’t want to put it down and her portrayal of the Lacks family is so well done that I felt truly appalled by the levels of deception by the scientists of the time, as well as the hurtful racism. (Deborah seems truly unhinged by the incident, especially when she discovers she had a sister who died in a mental institution when she was only 15).

It’s a strange subject for a bestseller, but it does not surprise me that it has done so well and I would urge you to read it if you want an incredibly well written, well researched book that keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next.

And don’t blame me if you wake up grumpy.

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Life’s too short to read a bad book

And by this I don’t mean a book that has no literary merit, I mean a book that’s not connecting with me when I’m reading it. I used to think that I had to finish every book I read, especially if it had been recommended to me. Even more so if it had been recommended to me as a ‘really good book’. I would plough my way through page after page, chapter after chapter, even if every word were as excrutiating to read as a hand-written sonnet by a 15 year old boy. All this, just so I could say ‘I’ve read that book’.

Now? Now I have a pile of books next to my bed, all of which I want to get through and which I don’t have enough time to get through. I sometimes feel like they’re needy children camped out next to me while I sleep, each one whispering, ‘choose me’. Now, when I start reading a book, if I don’t have a good response to it, if I’m starting to fall asleep too soon, if I can’t remember any of the characters the next morning, if the characters don’t seem believable, if any amount of different things, I simply close the book, take out my bookmark and put it down. (Though there is still a part of me that twinges with a hint of guilt when I do it).

I will admit that I have done this to the great JM Coetzee. In fact, I’ll come clean and say it: “I don’t like some of JM Coetzee’s books”. I was going to say “I don’t like JM Coetzee”, but that would be unfair as I have admired some of his books greatly. He is a very, very good writer, so succinct he sometimes makes my mouth pucker like a dry champagne. But I really don’t like many of his books simply for the reason that they make me feel depressed. I don’t want to feel depressed; I feel depressed too often in my life to wish to add to it.

I started the new Barbara Trapido the other day, “Sex and Stravinksy”. I was so excited to see a new one from her, it seems like years since she’s brought out a new book. I loved some of her books – who can forget “Brother of a Lesser Jack”? I read the first chapter of her new one and tried really hard not to fall asleep in the second chapter. It seems I didn’t succeed, as I woke up in the morning with the book next to me in the bed. I had to start again that evening, as I couldn’t remember any of the characters. Again I fell asleep on the second chapter. When I picked it up the following evening and still couldn’t remember the characters, I closed it and put it down. With regret, I have to say. I had been looking forward to reading that book.

There are many more that I have put down, inflicting a premature death onto them, perhaps unfairly. But I would prefer to enjoy a book in the time that I have to read, rather than wade through it painfully. At least now, in my mid-forties, I feel secure enough to be able to put a book down, irrespective of who the author is, and say, “I’m not enjoying this.” Even if I only whisper it quietly to myself.

It might not be a fairy tale, but it’s a very good book

“Not a Fairy Tale” by Shaida Kazie Ali is one of the best local books I’ve read in a long time. Remember in the bad old days how anything South African wasn’t good enough, when overseas was a better place, and our books/music/films were frankly embarrassing? Back then I used to read fiction by English or American authors and believe that we would never have normal books written about normal lives in this country.

Luckily, the local publishing scene is changing so rapidly I can barely read quickly enough and “Not a Fairy Tale” is one of those books I used to wish would be written here. I read it in one sitting (well, in between feeding hungry soccer players, walking the restless soccer-ball-chewing puppy and answering the phone as my son’s social secretary) because I didn’t want to leave it for too long – Shaida Ali had woven a spell around me as though she were my literary fairy godmother.

The story revolves around two sisters – Zuhra and Serena – born of the same Muslim parents, although totally different looking. Born first, Serena is light-skinned and can pass for being white in apartheid South Africa, while Zuhra is dark skinned with “kroes” hair. And then there is Faruk (or Faruk-Paruk as Zuhra calls him) who is the pampered nasty son, the favoured prince.

Serena suffers under her parents’ hands; her father hits her and her mother stops her from going to school after she was found holding a dark boy’s hand. Instead of going to high school, she is made to work in her father’s corner cafe. She marries Zain, a pig of a lawyer-man, after her parents arrange her marriage for her.

Zuhra is wilful and rebellious; she does well enough at school to go to university and then leaves the country as soon as she can. She goes to England where she falls in love with an Englishman, who is not a doctor, much to her mother’s dismay. And who, unlike Zain, is a good man.

The story is introduced and finished by a  unseen narrator, whose existence we only discover at the end of the book. The first half of the book tells Zuhra’s story; the second half Selena’s, and their lives interlace throughout the novel. I found Zuhra’s voice to be very funny and often smiled wryly at her black humour. Serena’s story was more painful to read; she had to pay the price for being born with a fair skin into a Muslim family.

Recipes are woven throughout the narrative and they are wonderful, because they are by-the-by; not preciously inserted like they are in some books. My favourite one is Rice Krispies with Bananas, because I still like to listen to the snap, crackle and pop of those little bubbles.

As well as recipes, the narrative is interspersed with fairy tales. But these are not fairy tales as we know them. I have always found fairy tales scary anyway; have done so since I was little. The toad in Thumbelina gave me sleepless nights. In this book, the fairy tales are also scary. They are Shaida’s own wonderful interpretations – terrifying, but terribly funny at the same time.

This book is great fun and is easy to read, but it affected me on a far deeper level than just that. Underlying the sisters’ stories, is a dark undershadow of the realities of life – the awfulness of apartheid, the warped affections of dysfunctional families, the mundanity of normal life, the abuse of women, the sadness of child death, the numbing state of depression.

Shaida Ali has written a book of great depth for her first novel. It is too well-written to be a sugar-coated fairy tale and thank heavens it isn’t. She just has to hurry up now and write the next one.

PS: I know Shaida and have watched this book mature from its first draft. I have believed in it from the minute I read the first chapter. Shaida is a straight-talking, no-bullshit kind of person and I wouldn’t dare write a review that didn’t reflect honestly what I think of her book. So, Shaida, I mean every bit of this review. I wouldn’t have written otherwise.

To Kindle or not to Kindle?

Five reasons why I want a Kindle

  1. My luggage won’t be overweight from cramming too many books into it when I travel
  2. I won’t break my shoulder with my hand luggage, into which I’ve shoved all the book so that my bags aren’t overweight
  3. Sadly enough, downloaded books are a whole lot cheaper than real ones. With the amount of reading I do, that’s a big attraction
  4. I won’t squash the pages of a Kindle when I shove it into my handbag/down the side of the sofa/when I fall asleep on it late at night
  5. I will look like a hip middle-aged techno-whizz

Five reasons why I don’t want a Kindle

  1. How could an electronic gadget replace the feel of paper pages?
  2. It won’t have that clean, woodchip smell that a new book has
  3. A Kindle won’t feel like a friend when I hold it
  4. I can’t have a pile of Kindles next to my bed
  5. Books have existed for millenia – will Kindles?


The angst of first love

Believe it or not, I’ve just finished reading Twilight. No, I wouldn’t recommend it for book club or put it on your list of must-reads, but I wanted to see what on earth has made this series so unbelievably popular. Even the boys at Bishops are reading them, and they very seldom read books with a female main character (I can say a few rude words about that, but won’t).

Reading Twilight, I was immediately thrown back to being a fourteen or fifteen-year-old in the throws of first love. Do you remember being in love for the first time? It was agony and ecstacy all in one. The physicality of it – sweating palms, racing heart, trembling legs and then that aching heart when you couldn’t see him. The very seriousness of that relationship – it was all a matter of life and death whether he phoned or not, whether he smiled at you at the right time or not, whether he walked out the room when you expected him to; for god’s sake, even whether he raised his left eyebrow or not. Everything was fraught with meaning.

Twilight brought it all back for me. Belle falls crashingly in love with just the boy she shouldn’t. He seems to hate her at first, although already you know that he is in love with her as well. And of course he is the best-looking boy in the school. He has to be – it wouldn’t make much of a story if he were an Archie lookalike.

Even though I can relate to those agonising moments of first love, I didn’t fall for a vampire. Although I probably would have, knowing me. I always went for the dangerous ones. Belle falls deeply in love with Edward (whoever has heard of a vampire called Edward – wrong name, I think) and of course there’s trouble.

There were many elements of the book that irritated me – for example, Belle seems to take the whole vampire thing totally in her stride, so much so that she suggests Edward should “take” her and make her into a vampire. I mean, come on, how stupid is that. Rather just have plain bonking sex and stay the same.

Sexual repression vibrates through the whole book; in fact, it has been touted as a good advertisement for abstaining from sex before marriage. The author is, after all, a Mormon. A bloody rich Mormon by now.

I don’t think I need to read any of the others, now that I know what the fuss is all about. And, you know, if I were thirteen or fourteen again, I would have devoured these books.  I caught a glimpse of the movie on TV the other day, and yes, Edward is ghoulishly delicious. All ivory skin and dark bags under the eyes, rippling six pack. Strange hair, though.

If your daughter (and dare I say, your sons) hasn’t read Twilight yet, give it to her; I think it’s a great, well-written gripping book for a teenager.

“Shoot the Damn Dog” – she’s gone barking mad

Winston Churchill called it his “black dog”, some call it a “black hole” , it has been  called “the noonday demon”, and Sally Brompton just wanted to shoot the damn thing. Once a successful editor of Elle magazine, Sally suffered from such a bad depression that, at one stage, she was unable to leave her flat and was drinking two bottles of wine a day. She tried to commit suicide twice and was hospitalised twice. Both the alcohol and suicide attempts were a desperate wish just to get rid of the dark cloak of depression that covered her.

I found this book to be a fascinating account of her depression – she writes about it openly and frankly, with no self-pity and no attempt to glamourise it either. She says that looking back on it, there were signs that depression was creeping up on her, such as a grief and sadness welling in her; she pushed those feelings aside, as she had such a successful life, it wasn’t possible that she could be feeling sad.

Unfortunately for her, once clinical depression was diagnosed, she seemed to have drug-resistant depression and was unable to find an anti-depressant that could lift her out of it. The overwhelming severity and length of the depression was what led her to drink and pills. So, as well as having to deal with her damn dog, she had to go into rehab for alcoholism. Now that’s a bummer.

The book, though, doesn’t only cover her story, but also discusses depression in an easily accessible way, which makes me think that this would be a good book for anyone to read, not just those who battle with depression. Personally, I found it such a comfort to read, having had a pack bloody rottweilers snapping at my ankles at times. It’s always good to know there are others out there who have had the same experience, for, as Sally puts it, depression is such a lonely illness.

What does amaze me about her story is that she seems to go to such disasterous therapists – she must be a very intelligent woman, yet she was unable to see how bad some of them were. To be fair to her, she writes that she was in such a bad way that she couldn’t make any decisions. Her psychiatrist, also, doesn’t seem to tackle the problem with much urgency, but perhaps that is just how she writes about him.

The psychiatric units she goes into sound horrendous, with bars on all the windows and even the odd screaming person, like in horror movies. Both the ones I’ve been in have been positively luxurious compared with the ones she describes. But then, she meets some wonderful characters in the insititutions, who become great friends of hers over time.

Through her awful depression, she somehow managed to keep her relationship with her daughter, Molly, going (who was about 10 at the time and a very mature sounding 10 year old, but I suppose she had to be in that situation). Sally did everything possible to look after Molly. She also had a good relationship with her ex-husband, who looked after Molly when Sally was physically unable to because of the crippling effects of the depression and the side-effects of the drugs she tried.

I could go on for ages about this book, as I could relate to virtually everything in it – except for the drinking and the terrible side-effects of the anti-depressants. It is extremely well-written and I would recommend it to anyone who has battled with depression or anyone else who wants to understand the illness.

Mow the damn dog down with a machine gun, I say.

The Selected Works of TS Spivet

I felt lost in another world when I read this book, a bit like I felt when I was young and read The Magic Faraway Tree; that gloriously delicious feeling of escaping life here and being someone, or with someone, for a while. This is Rief Larson’s first novel (I hate him) and Vanity Fair speculated in an article that he was given an advance by Penguin (I think) of $1 million, after a bidding war (I hate him even more now).

TS Spivet is 12 year old and lives in Montana. His dad is a cowboy and his mother, Dr Claire, is a frustrated scientist, forever in search of the elusive tiger beetle. TS is a mapmaker. He maps everything, from the size of his bedroom to facial expressions. His cartography is so good that he contributes drawings, maps and articles to magazines across America, and is so well done that an elderly friend of his submits TS’s work to the Smithsonian Institute. When the Smithsonian Institute phones TS to tell him he’s won a prize and has to come to Washington to receive his award, he disguises his voice to sound like an adult and agrees to go. And so TS runs away from home and travels across America to go and receive his prize.

There is much more to the book than those bare bones I have just given you. TS has siblings and there is a family tragedy, and the story line is good, although I found it did drag a bit towards the end and I don’t think the ending was worthy of the rest of the book. Possibly the editing could have been a bit tighter.

But, what made me love this book was the cartography within the book. It has been published in a bigger format than usual, to give it big enough margins to include drawings, maps, graphs, figures and annotations, all supposedly done by Larson. I worry that I am becoming terribly cynical as I get older, but I do wonder how on earth god dolloped so much talent onto one person. I bet you he’s good looking, too.

The drawings wander up and down the pages, crawl around the edges and onto the next, run alongside the text and hide at the bottom of the pages. I would guess that about 2/3 of the pages have some sort of drawings on them and a huge range of subjects is covered by them. I was fascinated and spent ages pouring over them; it was a bit like reading a book within a book. A bit like looking at a book made by little people, like fairies or elves. I know that some people were irritated by all this extra information in the margins, but it delighted me. I might have even bought the book just for its size – there is something very appealing about a book that doesn’t fit well into the bookshelves at Exclusives.

Not everyone I know has been captivated by this book; I know some friends have wondered why on earth I’ve made such a fuss about it. But even if you don’t like the book or don’t want to buy it, take a look at the book’s website. I also found that to be a delicious experience.

I would like to meet TS Spivet. He is a fascinating literary character. Perhaps he will become a classic, along with his cartography and the book about him.