Welcome to my blog. There's no particular theme I'm just posting random thoughts and things that interest me

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Booker Question

I’m not one of those people who has to finish a book once I’ve started it. If a book is boring me I’ll quite happily abandon it without a backward glance if I’ve got something better to do. I once whiled away a three hour delay at a shopless Porto airport trying to remember all 92 football league clubs and work out how many grounds I’d been to as The Da Vinci Code lay in my bag, stalled forever at page 62. It’s not a snobbish thing either. War and Peace, Swann’s Way and Lord of the Rings have all gone the way of The Da Vinci Code. (Although I like to think I haven’t given up on War and Peace -  I’m just reading it very very slowly).

As I can’t possibly like everything, if I start a book I don’t like I put it down, move on and forget about it. Except every once in a while I read a book which irritates me so much I just can’t let it go. The Times called Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question “a masterpiece”. Novelist Beryl Bainbridge described as “wonderful”. And to cap it all, it won the 2010 Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes. So I bought it and started reading.

I’ll admit, I got off to a bad start. On page 6 we’re told, “It was a late-summer evening, the moon high and skittish.” I knew horses could be skittish, people even. But a moon? I couldn’t get it out of my head. What did it mean? As I sat contemplating, I could see our cocker spaniel Ziggy stretched out by the French doors dozing peacefully, bathed in moonlight. Suddenly, Ziggy jumped up and pressed his nose to the window. It must be foxes in the garden I thought, until silly me, it hit me - a skittish moon freaking out the dog. I wish the moon would stop that and grow up. And as for those stars, so arrogant and aggressive. I wanted to shout out, “Oi twinkle, stop staring at me or I’ll put your lights out!”

Anyway, over the (skittish) moon (as it were) I read on. This is the storyline: three blokes occasionally meet up after two of them lose their wives. That’s it, the end. Except it isn’t quite everything. These loathesome, boring characters endlessly and earnestly ponder BIG themes like loss, friendship and identity, in particular Jewish identity. One of the three, the one who’s not Jewish, is called “Julian”. As Jacobson keeps labouring, the “Ju” bit sounds like “jew”. See what he did there? Exactly, so what?

I’m prepared to accept that maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s not fashionable with Booker Prize judges but I think a plot and some characters the reader can empathise with are a reasonable starting point for a novel. If it was good enough for Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Mark Twain then is it too much to ask of Howard Jacobson? However big and important a book’s themes are, they have no impact if the reader isn't engaged in the story or the characters.

The blurb on the back also describes the Finkler Question as funny. I found one joke early on: one of the characters mistakes the Yiddish word for a swan with the Yiddish word for, wait for it, a penis. Laugh? I nearly wished I was filling out my tax return again.

If you’re still interested in buying this self-indulgent nonsense then my advice would be to check out your local charity shops. I bet they’re awash with them and after page 40 the book won't even be second hand. Meanwhile, where did I leave that War and Peace…

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

Mary Kubicek, a 21 year old research assistant at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, had never seen a dead body before she attended Henrietta Lack's autopsy. Determined not to faint, she avoided looking into Henrietta’s lifeless eyes. Instead, she focussed on handing petri dishes to the pathologist as he cut tissue from the cancerous tumours that littered Henrietta’s body. Then Mary noticed Henrietta’s feet and the chipped red nail polish on her toes, and gasped. “When I saw those toenails I nearly fainted,” Mary recalled. “I thought oh jeez she’s a real person.”

Before the autopsy Mary had merely thought of Henrietta Lacks as the source of the extraordinary cells grown by her boss, tissue researcher George Gey.  These were the first human cells successfully grown outside the body. Months before, whilst Henrietta was being treated for the cancer that would soon kill her, tissue was taken from her cervix without her knowledge or consent. Unlike all other cells which Gey had tried but failed to cultivate, Henrietta’s cells – which he called HeLa cells by taking the first two letters of her names – did something Gey had never seen before. “They could be kept alive and grow.” Gey had created the first “immortal” cells. Cells that could divide an unlimited time in a laboratory.

Gey was soon sending the cells to virtually any scientist who asked for them. In 1954, Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine with the help of HeLa cells. Since then the cells have been mass produced and used in countless research projects all over the world including ones relating to cancer, AIDS and the effects of radiation. It’s estimated that by 2009 more than 60,000 scientific articles about HeLa cells had been published. That number is increasing by more than 300 per month.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the science. She asks who was the woman with the flaking red toenail polish. And what happened to the five children left motherless by her death at the age of 31?

Skloot vividly evokes Henrietta’s early life living and working in the family’s Virginia tobacco fields – the same fields which her ancestors had worked as slaves. Later, after Henrietta, her husband Day and their five children move to Baltimore, Skloot describes how Henrietta would sneak out to dance halls with her cousin Sadie after her husband had gone off to work. As Sadie recalls: “We used to really swing out heavy. We couldn’t help it. Hennie made life come alive – bein with her was like bein with fun.”

At the heart of the book is Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was just two years old when her mother died. Deborah and her three brothers didn’t even know about the HeLa cells until 22 years after their mother's death. Skloot helps Deborah and her brothers try to answer the questions that have been gnawing at them ever since. As Deborah says: “If our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a dime.”

Skloot’s brilliant, fascinating book deals with poverty, racism and the medical ethics that determine who owns the cells our bodies are made of. 

But most of all this is a book about Henrietta’s family and especially Deborah who “just wants to know who my mother was.” When a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital invites Deborah and her brother Zakariyya to look at some HeLa cells under a microscope it’s so moving you would think they had been reunited with their mother after 50 years. “They’re beautiful,” Deborah whispers, "I never dreamed this day would come.”