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Cromhall Book Group reviews

Latest Book Review: 'Monsignor Quixote' by Graham Greene

6 of us met to discuss the book and I had comments from two others. Most enjoyed it to some extent, some more than others.

We found it gentle and funny but for some it lost its novelty after a while and became just more if the same. Average score was 6.9 with a spread from 4 to 9.

‘Paula Spencer' by Roddy Doyle

This book was written in 2006 as a sequel to The Woman Who Walked into Doors which he wrote 10 years earlier.

The book finds Paula Spencer, widowed, an alcoholic struggling to keep her family together in Dublin. She is holding down a job as a cleaner to provide for her two children still living at home. She is a mother and a sister and knows that she has not been very good at either.

She feels that the world has passed her by and her life is depicted in the number of days that she has been sober.

The group found that the style that Doyle wrote was appropriate to the subject, the sentences were often brief and fragmented which gave the feeling of Paula's chaotic lifestyle. The absence of chapters also added to this theme.

The subject gave food for thought and discussion reflecting on our own children and our own lives.

Not everyone finished the book and the average score given by 7 people was 5.5.

‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot

We had a lively discussion about this month's book, and it rated fairly well with a mean score of 7.1. Unlike previous books, it felt that the group differed less in their overall opinions.

The book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor American black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. At the time of her hospital treatments, cervical biopsies were taken without consent as none was required at that time. The cells taken were the first ever cells capable of not only surviving for long periods in culture, but also of multiplying at a startling rate. Their ability to do this meant that for the first time, scientists had cells with which they could test the effects of drugs, diseases and exposure to harmful elements. They were called HeLa cells (first two letters of her first and last name), and are still alive today, contributing vast amounts to medical science and research. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine, uncovering secrets of cancer, viruses, effects of the atom bomb and helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping, being bought and sold by the billions.

The unfolding story is told by Skloot who spent many years researching the subject and building relationships with Henrietta's family. She paints a vivid picture of early 50's America, and life as it was then for a black woman in the southern states. Her telling of Henrietta's diagnosis, treatment and demise is compelling social history, which the group agreed was the most gripping part of the book. The following chapters explore how Henrietta's family later learn about HeLa cells, their reactions to this, and how such a discovery affected them and their lives. What was startling was the realization that, despite the HeLa industry being a monumental machine of profit, Henrietta's family lived, and still live, in poverty. Whilst medicine rejoiced in their mother's cell line, the family were unable to afford their own medical bills.

The group had various discussions prompted by the book, We considered the racial divide and tensions which still exist within the U.S., and considered how this story might have played out had a middle class white woman's cells been harvested. Whilst the group felt no individual should profit directly from the use of their tissue for research, due to the implications this could have for advances in medicine, it was still recognised as unjust that Henrietta's family are at one end of a huge divide. It was unclear how much the family actually truly understood about the use of Henrietta's cells - how much was explained to them but not processed? The lack of real recognition for Henrietta's contribution to research was agreed by all to be unfair.

Discussion also ensued around each of the family members - most notably Henrietta's daughter Deborah (Dale) - a feisty and unpredictable character, with her own personal history. The group felt that there were a lot of family members to remember - many names - and also many members of the medical teams were referred to. These could be hard to remember, and we found ourselves reading and re reading some parts.

Whilst some found the book easy to read, others found it less so. Whilst Skloot does an admirable job of de-jargonising medical terms, they are still prolific. We got a sense of how confusing some issues may be for Henrietta's family. Skloot herself, the group felt, had a slightly patronising attitude towards the family. We were unsure if her inclusion of herself as a character central to the book actually added any value. It may have been better told from an outsider's point of view. Instead, some parts of the book can feel a little like Skloot sounding her own trumpet. Many times we are reminded how hard she works, how difficult family members are to engage with, but boy does she persevere - what a hero....?!

This book was not classed as a 'page turner' - rather one which people felt they 'should' read, and learn from, akin to a history text book perhaps. The learning was not necessarily always hugely enjoyable, but the resulting knowledge left the group with many more questions than prior to reading, yet with a deeper undertsanding of some complex and difficult issues. We would recommend this book.

‘River of Time’ by Jon Swain

This book was something a little different, being our first non-fiction read, and is the personal account of one man’s experiences during the conflicts in Cambodia and Vietnam from 1970 – 1975. Jon Swain is a journalist who reported on on the war in Indo-China, initially for Agence France-Presse and then as a freelance reporter, and his coverage ultimately won him the British Press Awards Journalist of the Year. Despite the horror, atrocities and tragedy he witnessed, he fell completely in love with Indo-China and this book is as much a homage to those lands as it is a story of war. His descriptions of the exotic and beautiful pre-war Cambodia in particular are so powerful and so evocative that I found myself as bewitched with the country as the author. These descriptions are in stark contrast to the grim reality of war, the true horror of which he describes just as ably.

This book was well received by most of the group who found it to be a very informative and poignant account of the Indo-China conflict. Some found it difficult to get into, in part due to the journalistic style in which it’s written which makes it feel a little disjointed in parts. It is also not a book for the faint-hearted and some of the terrible events described are almost too hard to read. Certainly it would be difficult not to be moved by this beautifully written book, which would appeal to anyone with an interest in South East Asia, a region so shaped by its tragic past.

‘When God was a Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman

Spanning four decades, from 1968 onwards, this is the story of a fabulous but flawed family and the slew of ordinary and extraordinary incidents that shape their everyday lives. It is a story about childhood and growing up, loss of innocence, eccentricity, familial ties and friendships, love and life. Stripped down to its bare bones, its about the unbreakable bond between a brother and a sister.

The book club generally enjoyed this book, for its lighthearted tone, ability to amuse and make us laugh out loud and for basically being an "easy read". We particularly enjoyed the first half, when the main characters are children. The description of that childhood particularly resonated with some of us, for example in the freedom they enjoyed to go out and play, the football pools and we all thought the author captured childhood innocence and expression really well.

We felt the book let us down a bit in the second half as the children became adults. It became more serious and less believable and lost its amusement factor. The book provoked some discussion about more serious topics - child abuse/grooming, the restrictions now placed on children and the lack of outdoor play they enjoy unsupervised, brother/sister relationships and guilt.

All in all though it was a thumbs up - we all felt it would be a good holiday read for this summer if you manage to get any relaxing time on a beach! Overall we rated it 6.5 out of 10.

‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’ by Maggie O’Farrell

In the 1930s it was possible to commit difficult, rebellious and unconventional women to an asylum on the authorisation of a single doctor. These women were only released when the institutions closed down under the ‘Care in the Community’ Act in the 1990’s. Maggie O’Farrell has used this regrettable social history to create a powerful, outrage-inspiring and disturbing book.

Esme is institutionalised in the 1930’s for … well, that would be telling…and 60 years later is released when her asylum is closed. A series of events brings her to the home of her grandniece, Iris – a business woman with a complicated love life who had she lived in

Esme’s time may well have suffered the same fate. Secrets, especially of betrayal, are revealed slowly through the narrative voices of Esme and her older sister Kitty, now suffering from Alzheimer’s. The reader joins Iris on a kind of detective hunt for her family’s true story.

Some of the book club members thought that jumping from Iris, Esme and Kitty’s stories disrupted the plot’s flow and most members agreed they would have liked greater depth to the characters. This said, the plot was engrossing and the ending unexpected. We felt it was a good book club read as it inspired a wealth of discussion around issues such as: social repression, mental health, family relationships and revenge.

On average, it scored 6 out of 10.

Back to Book Club page

See also

Thornbury Library
Yate Library
South Gloucestershire's Mobile Library

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