I managed to read a couple of books while we were away over Christmas, both of which I highly recommend. First up was Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, which was an absolutely unputdownable read. It is a true account based on a scientific process that you would expect to be quite dry, namely tissue culture. For years scientists had been trying to cultivate cells which could replicate themselves, and the first ones that worked were taken from a cancerous tumour from Henrietta Lacks. The cell line was known as ‘HeLa’ (after the first letters of her first and second names) and has been used over the years in amazing scientific breakthroughs in treatments and research. However, for decades her family knew nothing about the cells, or what had happened to Henrietta, living in poverty while scientists got rich. The book entwines the stories of Henrietta, her various family members (particularly her daughter Deborah), the various scientists and doctors involved, and also Rebecca Skloot the author (she intertwines her own story of trying to track down the family and the various parties involved). I know that she has been criticised in some reviews for including too much of her own story, but I for one really enjoyed that aspect of the book, I guess that’s the researcher in me. The book raises really important issues around research ethics, racism, consent, progress, ownership, personhood – it really was an extraordinary read.
The other book I read was “An Atlas of Remote Islands” by Judith Schalansky. What a beautiful book! Schalansky was born in East Germany in 1980, and in her extensive introduction she talks about how as a child she used to pore over maps and atlases and talk about how one day she would travel, which at the time would have been impossible on that side of the Iron Curtain. She also talks a lot about the politics of maps, and the various decisions made about how they are drawn/made. The bulk of the book though is an exploration of some of the most isolated islands in the world – from every ocean, Arctic to Antarctic, Atlantic to Indian to Pacific. Each is given the same treatment – two pages each, the left hand page being written information, and the right hand page a scale drawing of the island under discussion. Rather than being ‘everything there is to know about X island’, she has researched interesting facts, so for some of them she details a historical event, others a geographical thing-of-interest, others a random factoid, and outlines those. It’s quite hard to describe actually, but I really thought it was beautiful – rather sparse, but a real work of art.
This week I got a new toy, I finally succumbed to the 21st century and got myself an eReader (not a kindle, as I’m both unhappy about amazon’s lack of taxpaying in the UK and also I don’t trust the proprietary device which will only allow you to buy compatible books via amazon). So far I have downloaded lots of free books, mostly classics (thank you Project Gutenberg and FeedBooks). I also have a big chunk of paper books still to be read, so I think these will keep me going for a good while! I have downloaded quite a few translations of Russian classics (which to my shame I have never read, not a single one!), so hopefully it will be educational as well as fun 🙂
I was having an interesting chat with people at work before Christmas about stuff we read, and (I did already know this, but it really hit me) I realised that I tend to read non-fiction to relax rather than fiction. I think this is for the same reason as I find watching films a bit stressful: I get so caught up in the ‘world’ of the film/book that the images and stories run round my mind for ages and ages and I can’t stop thinking about them, and then often dream about them too – it’s really difficult to let them go. Whereas non-fiction I can appreciate the writing, learn lots, get angry, get inspired, but it doesn’t knock my equilibrium quite so much! Although, as the book on Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells showed, some people’s lives really are stranger than fiction.