Granny's Good Reads 

Sonia Lee is one of our most treasured customers and a voracious reader.

March 2017

 - Wednesday, March 01, 2017
I’d never have thought that I’d spend a whole month totally absorbed in a book on genetics. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History ($25, B format due 5.17) begins with his own family history of near-relations suffering from mental illness, and then charts the long search for the basis of heredity, all the way from Gregor Mendel’s research on pea-hybrids to the discovery of the structure of DNA and the subsequent Genome-mapping projects, including the recently completed Human Genome Project. In 1905 the geneticist William Bateson predicted that once the facts of heredity were known, mankind would be sure to interfere, and so it has proved. The first half of the 20th century was blighted by ‘eugenics’ programs with sinister outcomes including (in the USA) sterilisation of the ‘genetically defective’ and (in Nazi Germany) mass murder. The Human Genome Project has led to the discovery of recombinant DNA, which in turn has led to the production of clones, the manufacture of drugs like insulin in test tubes, the genetic modification of plants and animals and even the patenting of genes. I found especially interesting the chapters on IQ, the discovery of the Y chromosome, genetic research on identical twins reared apart, and the quest for a ‘gay’ gene. The problem of trans-gender humans is exhaustively and sympathetically discussed.  The question ‘What is due to nature and what to nurture?’ is still hotly debated, as responses to the publication of this book showed. For example, do our genes predispose us to altruism, religious belief, political commitment and artistic sensitivity, as well as giving us our physical characteristics? How much of a difference does environment, chance, or even accident, make? At another level, how useful will gene therapy be in saving patients from diseases like cancer, muscular dystrophy and auto-immune conditions? In 1924 JBS Haldane contended that once the power to control genes was harnessed, ‘no beliefs, no values, no institutions are safe’. Mukherjee agrees, maintaining that genetic theory is one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the whole history of science.
One thing I did not know is that mitochondria (the ‘batteries’ and metabolism regulators of our cells) are hardly ever transmitted by males, but are normally passed to offspring through the female line. So, if a mother only has sons her mitochondria die out, which has led geneticists to conclude that modern humans have descended from one ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, possibly a lady from somewhere in West Africa. Mukherjee also tells us that  the male sex gene is buried precariously on the Y chromosome, so that males ‘barely made it’. There’s a useful glossary of scientific terms for when the reader gets bamboozled. I was so impressed by The Gene that I went on to read The Emperor of all Maladies ($23), Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of cancer, a deeply humane ‘biography’ of cancer with many case studies. Both of  these books are riveting reads.

Russians seem to have endurance buried deep in their DNA. In Secondhand Time ($35) Svetlana Alexievich illustrates this in her oral historyof the ‘Last of the Soviets’. Alexievich was born in the Ukraine in 1948 to a Ukrainian mother and a Belarusian father but writes in Russian. Between 2000 and 2011 she lived in exile, mainly in Western Europe, and has dedicated herself to capturing the voices of those who lived, suffered or prospered after the disintegration of the USSR, when rampant capitalism allowed oligarchs to plunder the wealth of the country. Her book is made up of interviews recorded over thirty years up to 2010 and skilfully presented so as to give the voices free rein. Many of the interviews are ‘kitchen conversations’ conducted with the water running to swamp possible listening devices. Alexievich also gives a welcome timeline of events in the USSR after Stalin’s death. Russians of course knew of the executions and the gulags, but in that bygone age they also had hope and pride in ‘the Motherland’. Though they lacked even some of the most basic consumer goods, they had full employment and were avid readers. One interviewee remembers such a girl at school, who lived with her grandmother and had only one dress for the whole year. No one looked down on her then, while now such poverty would be thought shameful. Another couple found that their 90 roubles a month had become inadequate and spoke bitterly of ‘all [those] young men with gold rings and magenta blazers’. Some of the stories are so poignant that they bring tears to the eyes. Svetlana Alexievich was awarded a Nobel Prize for her work in 2015.  Secondhand Time is a masterpiece which could profitably be read in tandem with Simon Montefiore’s monumental work The Romanovs ($25, B format due April). Sonia Lee