Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (non-fiction)

In 1951 a young black woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with what turned out to be an extremely aggressive form of cervical cancer. During her treatment, tissue was removed from her body and placed in a petrie dish where her malignant cells continued to divide and multiply, resulting in the first ever immortal cell line. Ms. Lacks died within months of first being diagnosed with cancer, leaving behind a husband and five children.

This book tells the little-known story of Henrietta Lacks's short life, the development of her immortal cell line, and how her family has been impacted by both her death and finding out 20 years after her death that her cells were still very much alive and spread all over the globe in laboratories, hospitals, and tissue banks.

Henrietta's cells are still alive today, and it is safe to say that every person alive today who has benefited in any way from medical science has benefited from her cell line. They have been used (and continue to be used) to study gene mapping, develop vaccines, medications, and even in vitro fertilization, research cancer and cancer treatments, study the effects of chemicals, cosmetics, drugs, environmental pollutants, and a variety of other things on living cells. What is ironic is that the descendants of Henrietta Lacks live in poverty and many of them cannot even afford health care.

What is equally appalling is that Ms. Lacks's cells were taken from her body and used for research without her knowledge or consent. And while this may be shocking, what a lot of people don't realize (I didn't!) is that people only have rights over the tissues and bodily fluids that are attached to their bodies - once something is removed from your body, it's no longer yours. That was true in 1951, and it's still true today. This certainly raises some interesting ethical and moral questions.

It took the author about ten years to research and write the book, and I was completely engrossed from the first page. The author captures the very colorful and human side of the story, going into great depth about Henrietta and her family, as well as managing to convey all the technical science-y stuff in very readable layman's terms.

I'm hanging onto this one, hoping I can get my husband to read it, but I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Road

I thought it would be fun to read all the Pulitzer Prize winners from the past decade or so this year. Of course, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is anything but fun.

It's a bleak portray of survival during some undefined post-apocalyptic time. A study in "what it means to be human". A father and his son trying to make it day by day when all around them are murdering gangs and cannibalism. A Mad Max movie without a heroic Mel Gibson character.

Survival and humanity in and of itself is heroic, I suppose. Giving to others even when you have nothing.

Definitely thought-provoking and moving. Some find the triumph of humanity against all odds uplifting, but honestly I though the book was depressing. I just don't think humans will survive when everything is dead in the world. Still, I recommend it, just keep in mind the story's bleakness.

This one's on my Kindle, so just offering up a review!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (novel)

This is my book club's current selection. I am not a fan of romance novels on principle; I'm too much of a cynic. Not that this is a trashy romance novel, but it is a love story, and one that found me with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes more than a few times, despite myself. It tells the story of two young teens, a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl, both American by birth and living on the Pacific coast during WWII, who fall in love but are thwarted by both the boy's father who sees anyone Japanese as the enemy, and the war itself which results in all persons of Japanese ancestry being evacuated to "relocation camps" for the duration of the war.

It gives an interesting look at the internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII. I've heard vague allusions to concentrations camps right here on American soil during the war, but never really knew much about them until now. The novel inspired me to do a little online research of my own into this shameful slice of American history. The concentration camps here were very different from the Nazi concentration camps everyone has become familiar with; the prisoners were generally treated well and were only held until the war was over and then released. However, these were American citizens who were suddenly stripped of their rights and forced to pack whatever could fit into a suitcase, leaving the rest of their belongings behind, in most cases never to be retrieved, and to move hundreds of miles away to live in substandard housing in desolate areas.

The main character, Henry, a Chinese-American boy, makes many valiant attempts to hold onto his Japanese sweetheart, but of course they are eventually separated and go on to lead very separate lives, with only distant memories and tender heartache for the absence of the other. I won't give away the ending; read it for yourself. Mine's up for grabs.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Too Much Happiness

I find it really odd that Alice Munro's latest collection of short stories (and 2009 Booker Prize winner), Too Much Happiness is pretty darn depressing.

Some of the 10 stories are unbelievably tragic. But two in particular moved me.

"Face" is told as a man recounting his childhood--the man was born with a port wine birthmark. His father is horrified and wants his wife to put the baby in an institution, as they probably did when the story takes place. But the mom doesn't and the son turns out to have a successful life, even though the father would not even look at him. In one scene, the boy is playing with a childhood friend, when his friend paints half of her face purple. Not being mean, but because she wanted to be like him. But the boy's mom completely freaked out. However, at that point she realized that she could no longer shelter him from the world and enrolled him in boarding school.

Another story "Child's Play" is also told as a character (Marlene) recounting her childhood. The story centers around a secret she's carried all her life about a time in camp with her best friend Charlene. And the family who shared their duplex and the girl Verna who lived there. And Verna is a "Special."

This part of the story takes place right after the Depression, right before WWII. But I wonder if the sentiments that are relayed here are still true among kids today. "From the very beginning I had an aversion to her unlike anything I had felt up to that time for any other person. I said that I hated her, and my mother said, How can you, what has she ever done to you?" "Children of course are monstrously conventional, repelled at once by whatever is off-center, out of whack, unmangeable."

Verna shows up at summer camp (along with other "Specials", I was actually sort of impressed that they were trying to include them with the other kids back in the 1930s) and what happens between Verna and Marlene & Charlene ends up being tragic.

But it is something that haunts them until adulthood. Marlene even writes a book that explores "the attitude towards people who are mentally or physically unique."

And the story haunted me also. A child's view of the intellectually disabled. I couldn't read anything else for weeks and I still cry when I think about it.

This hardcover book is up for grabs. I'm wondering if anyone else feels the same way about that story (the other eight stories are also very good and insightful, although a couple of them had me scratching my head).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Little Bee (novel)

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The back of this book reads:

We don't want to tell you WHAT HAPPENS in this book.

It is a truly SPECIAL STORY and we don't want to spoil it.

NEVERTHELESS, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:

This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again - the story starts there . . .

Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.

Huh. Can't beat that for marketing, eh?

Without giving away what happens in the story, I'll just say that it centers around a young Nigerian refugee girl and an upper-middle class English wife and mother. What the story is about is making choices between saving fellow human beings and saving ourselves, and how it is possible to harm even while saving, and to save even while harming. It's a story about dilemmas and following our own moral compasses.

I liked this story, but I was not blown away by it as the front cover claimed I would be. It's a good book, but I don't think it lives up to the hype on the back cover. But maybe I'm just missing something . . . ?

Judge for yourself; it's up for grabs.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Lark and Termite (novel)

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

In this book, the author weaves together the stories of a young soldier shot down in the Korean War, and the reverberations of that event nine years later for a small, unconventional family in West Virginia. The two title characters are Lark, a seventeen-year-old girl, and the first-born daughter of the young soldier's wife from a previous relationship, and "Termite," the girl's younger half-brother and son of the fallen soldier. Lark and Termite are being raised by their aunt, although it is mostly Lark who raises and cares for Termite, who was born with spina bifida and hydrocephaly. The relationship between the siblings is one of great love and tenderness.

I'm still trying to decide how much I liked this book. I wanted to love it, to come away thinking "this is one of the best books I've ever read," in part because of the National Book Award Finalist sticker on the cover, and in part because the story involves a little boy with disabilities, for which I have a tender spot. But in truth, I had some trouble with this book because it took a great deal of concentration to decipher the prose, which is told in a sort of an eerie, dream-like narrative.

It's a good story . . . maybe not exactly my cup of tea, but it's gotten wonderful reviews. Anyone who wants my copy, let me know.