Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March/April 2011

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March/April 2011

Nick Hornby
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  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—Rebecca Skloot
  • The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome—Roland Chambers


  • Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime—John Heileman and Mark Halperin
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—Rebecca Skloot

In April 2010, I was a tragic victim of the volcanic ash cloud that grounded all flights into, out of, and across Europe for a few days. I am sure that other people have hard-luck stories too: weddings, births, and funerals were missed, job opportunities went begging, feckless husbands given one last chance got home to find their underwear strewn across the street, and so on. Mine, however, was perhaps more poignant than any of them: my family, stranded in Tenerife, was unable to celebrate my fifty-third birthday with me. Can you imagine? Of all the birthdays to miss, it had to be the one I was looking forward to the most. All my life I had wondered what it would be like to turn fifty-three, to open presents suitable for a fifty-three-year-old—something from the excellent Bald Guyzrange of beauty products, for example, or a Bruce Springsteen box set—while an adoring family looked on. Well, my adoring family was stranded on an island in the Mediterranean, in a hotel that apparently laid on a chocolate fountain for breakfast. When they eventually made it home, my birthday was clearly an event to be celebrated when it came around again in 2011, rather than retrospectively. I have therefore decided, perhaps understandably, that this April I will be turning fifty-three again. It’s not a vanity thing; it’s simply that I’m owed a birthday.

Back in 2010, I had to make do with the cards I’d been dealt, and the cards were these: a small group of friends bought me champagne, which we drank in my garden on a beautiful spring evening, at a time when I would usually be embarking on some terrible, strength-sapping, pointless fight about, say, shampoo and/or bedtime; the same friends then took me to a favorite local restaurant and gave me presents. You can see why I might feel bitter even to this day.

Three of the presents my friends had bought me were book-shaped, and miraculously, given the lack of deferred gratification in my book-buying life, I wanted to read them all, and didn’t own any of them. I got a lovely first edition of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a copy of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, and Marc Norman’s history of screenwriting, What Happens Next. Is it too late and too hurtful to say that my fifty-third birthday was perhaps the best ever?

Several months later, and I have finally read one of the three, even though I wanted to read all three of them immediately. (What happened in between? Other books, is what happened. Other books, other moods, other obligations, other appetites, other reading journeys.) ‘Game Change’, as you may or may not know, is about the 2008 election in the US,  and appeared in a couple of the best-of-year lists here in the UK, so I was reminded that I owned it; when I read it, I was reminded that politicians are unlike anyone I have ever met in my life.

Maybe some of you know politicians. Maybe you hang out with them, went to school with them, exchange Christmas cards with them. I’m guessing not, though. Politicians tend not to hang out with people like you, almost by definition. Typically, someone interested enough in the arts to be reading the Believer has spent a lot of time doing things that disqualify you not only from a career in politics, but from even knowing people who have a career in politics. While you were smoking weed, sleeping around, listening to Pavement, reading novels, watching old movies and generally pissing away every educational opportunity ever given to you, they were knocking on doors, joining societies, reading the Economist and being very, very careful about avoiding people and situations that might embarrass them later. They are the people who were knocking on your door five minutes after you arrived at college, asking for your vote in the forthcoming student representative election; you thought they were creeps, and laughed at them behind their backs. Meanwhile, they thought you were unserious and unfocussed, and patronised you irritatingly if you ever had cause to be in the same room. I hope that, however old you are, you have already done enough to kill any serious political ambition. If you haven’t wasted huge chunks of your life on art, booze and soft drugs, then you’ve wasted huge chunks of your life, and we don’t want you around here. Go away.

 Many of the characters in ‘Game Change’ are quite clearly creeps. They are not portrayed as creeps, for the most part. John Heileman and Mark Halperin obviously like the people who want to govern us, and their book, which is an unavoidable, enthralling mix of the gossipy and the profoundly significant, reflects this affection. And yet I defy anyone from around these parts to read this book without thinking, over and over again, who are these people? There’s John Edwards, of course, whose affair with the extraordinary Rielle Hunter was conducted more or less entirely in full view of an increasingly incredulous staff; when Edwards eventually realised the damage he had done to himself and his campaign, he lambasted a young staffer because he didn’t come to his boss “like a fucking man and tell me to stop fucking her”. But there are plenty of other strange people, too – people who don’t really seem to believe anything, but who are desperately anxious to know what the country wants to hear them saying.

Obama is different, of course, but it’s still very difficult to fathom why anyone would want to become a world leader. It’s really not a nice job. For four hundred thousand dollars a year – plus a nineteen thousand dollar entertainment budget, although I would imagine very little of that can go on CDs, books and cinema tickets – you give up safety, family life, social life, sleep, a significant proportion of your sanity, and the esteem of approximately two in every three of your fellow citizens. I am not being flippant: this is an intolerable prospect, for anyone with any sense of an inner life. This means that the people who want to represent us are actually the least representative people in the world.

 Here in Europe, we still love Obama. But right at the beginning of ‘Game Change’, when Halperin and Heileman are describing his relationship with Hillary Clinton, there is a line intended to convey how close the two were, once upon a time, but which serves only to make you wonder about politicians as a species. “At one point, Obama gave her a gift: a photograph of him, Michelle, and their two young daughters, Sasha and Malia.” So, hold on…Hillary was Barack’s mother? Because if she wasn’t, why on earth would he give her a picture of himself and his kids?  Would you do that with someone you knew professionally? “Here’s a framed picture of me. Put it up anywhere in your house. It doesn’t have to be on your mantelpiece. Or put it up in your office, on the half a shelf you have available for photos of your loved ones.” Try it, and see how often you’re invited to after-work drinks.

‘Game Change’ isn’t the book I thought it would be, perhaps because the nomination race and the presidential campaign were not what they looked like from across the Atlantic. I was expecting a thrilling and inspirational story, full of goodies and baddies, dizzying highs and dispiriting lows; instead, Heilemann and Helperin describe a long, strength-sapping and bitter trudge to victory. Much of the book is taken up with the inevitability of Clinton’s defeat, and her refusal to acknowledge it, while Obama waits with weary impatience. And the fight between Obama and McCain is a non-event, once Sarah Palin joins in and makes the sides uneven. This is not to say that ‘Game Change’ is dull. It isn’t, because every page feels like the truth. It’s just that the truth isn’t as uplifting as you want to believe.

 It was the holiday season here in the UK, which explains the brevity of the ‘Books Read’ list: my intellectual life is utterly dependent on my children attending school. The holiday season doesn’t explain why I didn’t pick up any fiction, and nor does it explain why I should choose to spend all my available reading time on the unpromising subjects of American politics and cancer cells. I will only regret it if ‘Game Change’ and ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ turn out to be the last two books I ever read, because I don’t think they illustrate the breathtaking range of my literary tastes. They make me look like the kind of non-fiction guy I meet on planes during book tours. “Should I have heard of you? See, I don’t read many novels. I like to learn something I didn’t know already.” At the time of writing I am halfway through a short and very beautiful YA novel, the completion of which should re-complicate me; meanwhile, you’ll have to forgive these pages of the Believer temporarily resembling the books section of Business Traveller magazine.

Maybe the business travellers know what they’re talking about, though, because ‘The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks’ is riveting, beautifully-written and, yes, educational. I learned stuff. I learned so much stuff that I kept blurting it out to anyone who’d listen. Do you know who Henrietta Lacks was? Have you ever heard of the HeLa cells? Did you know that they can be found in just about any research lab in the world? And so on. I’ll tell you, you don’t want to be living with me at the moment. I’m even more boring than usual.

 Rebecca Skloot’s extraordinary book is the story of a dirt-poor black woman who died an agonizing death from cervical cancer in 1951.  Just before Henrietta died, however, a surgeon sliced off a piece of her tumour and gave it to a research scientist called George Gey, who had been trying to grow human cells for years. Henrietta’s cells, however, grew like kudzu, for reasons that are still not entirely clear to scientists; they grew so fast, so uncontrollably, that when you look up HeLa on Wikipedia, the entry uses the word “contamination” in the first four lines. HeLa is so powerful and fierce and durable, so eager to reproduce itself, that it gets into everything.

After I had read the first three or four chapters, I was a little worried on Skloot’s behalf: I thought she was telling the story too quickly. Henrietta’s cells were duplicating, her place in medical history was assured… maybe the last couple of hundred pages would turn out to be the first one hundred rehashed and analysed, and the book would lose its breathtaking opening momentum. But the author knows what she has, and what she has is a  goldmine of material dealing with class, race, family, science and the law in America. In fact, ‘The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks’, like Adrian Nicole Blanc’s incredible ‘Random Family’, is about pretty much everything. (‘Random Family’ and Skloot’s book both took a decade to research and write, perhaps not coincidentally. I suspect that in both cases, the subject matter grew richer and richer with each year of contemplation.) Skloot tells brief, vivid and astonishing stories of medical ethics cases; she follows the cells as they get blasted into space and help find a vaccine for polio; she weaves in the lives of Henrietta’s children as they struggle through the decades following their mother’s death. They had no idea that she had achieved immortality until the 1970s, because nobody had  ever taken the trouble to tell them, or to ask their permission – a courtesy denied Henrietta herself, of course. And while you can go online this very second and buy HeLa cells , the Lacks family have struggled, mostly in vain, for employment, access to health care and recognition for Henrietta’s contribution to science. If I come across a book as good, as gripping, as well-constructed and as surprising as this in the rest of 2011, I will be a happy and grateful man.

Contemporary fiction is OK, but you don’t really learn anything from it, do you? It’s mostly written by a bunch of arty losers who couldn’t be bothered to go out and get a proper job, and who don’t know anything about the world anyway. Non-fiction, that’s the thing. Or historical fiction, because you know when you’re reading it that  people have done a whole load of research into nineteenth-century brick-making. Or thrillers, because you can learn a lot of things about high-grade weaponry. My New Year’s Resolution is to get a job as a, you know, a business guy, and join a business-guy book club. Plus, I’m going to befriend an important politician, a Minister or a Secretary of State. If any of you Ministers or Secretaries of State out there subscribe to this magazine and read this column, then Facebook me, OK? I am literally holding my breath, so hurry.   

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