Thursday, January 23, 2020

Book 217: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

"Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies." 

Dates read: March 17-21, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

Do you own your body? It seems like an absurd question, but it's a real one. After all, it wasn't so long ago that bodies could be bought and sold on the open market. Nowadays, for the most part, it seems like you own your body while it's a part of you, but what about when parts of it become detached? A pulled tooth, a fingernail clipping, a vial of your blood for testing. Once it's removed, who does it belong to?

In 1951, a 30 year-old black woman, a mother of five, walked into Johns Hopkins and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She underwent treatment, but didn't survive very long. While she was being treated, a sample was taken of her cervical cells, both the cancerous and non-cancerous ones. Each was cultivated, but while the latter cells died, the former grew and wouldn't stop growing. As was the custom at the time in that lab, the cell line was named after the person it came from: the first two letters of the first name, then the first two of the last. Henrietta Lacks. HeLa. One of the most widely used cell lines in the world for decades, but the person behind it was lost and some people even thought the original donor's name was Helen Lane...until Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which told the story of the woman and her descendants for the first time.

Well, "donor" might not have been the correct word to use up there, because Henrietta didn't knowingly "donate" anything. Instead, the doctors working on her took the samples without bothering to ask her permission, which was standard practice at the time. And the ethics of this sort of thing, the evolution of informed consent, is a key part of the book, which Skloot weaves around the story of the Lacks family. How fast medical science has grown, and how slow the field's understanding of or willingness to comply with what is right has been in trying to keep up with it. In a world where all you need to get a basic understanding of your genetic picture is $100, to spit in a tube, and 6-8 weeks for processing, what kind of protections should be around that data? We likely still don't know the full implications of something like that being hacked or leaked.

This book has become a science classic already, and it's easy to see why: Skloot is a talented storyteller, and for most of the book's run does an admirable job of keeping her three pieces (Henrietta herself, the HeLa cells/medical ethics, and the story of the Lacks children) in balance. She does great work in digging up what little information there is about Henrietta's short life, mostly through the connections she managed to build with the children Lacks left behind. I've got some grounding in science research from my days as a psychology student, and I know about some of the more egregious bullshit doctors used to get up to (especially with the poor and people of color), but even I was shocked at how lax regulations on human research used to be and how deeply the focus was on getting data at any costs. I was chilled by the story she recounts of a researcher, who the Lacks children believe was untruthful with them when she encountered them years before the book was written, expressing her longing to be able to get material (i.e. blood) from those same people to perform tests.

The reason I haven't rated this more highly, then, is that it starts to drag at the end, becoming more a story about how the story was reported, which tends to bother me unless it's in small doses. It's clearly rooted in a deep, real fondness for Deborah Lacks, one of her primary sources, and a desire to do justice to her story too...but for me, it didn't have the power of the larger narrative and didn't quite work. That being said, this is a story everyone should read and I definitely recommend it to a wide audience.

One year ago, I was reading: A Tale for the Time Being (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Mansfield Park

Three years ago, I was reading: Helter Skelter

Four years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Recent Additions to My Bookshelf

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the books we've added to our shelves recently. I'm going to break mine up into two parts: hard copies and Kindle editions. I'm trying to add more of the latter lately as I've completely run out of room for more of the former!

Hard Copy

The Half-God of Rainfall: I used a Christmas gift card to buy myself one of my wished-for books that I didn't get from anyone else!

Evolving in Monkey Town: I picked this up secondhand! When she passed last year, I heard great things about Rachel Held Evans's writing about her faith, so I'm looking forward to reading this.

Courtiers: I am always a sucker for royalty and royalty-adjacent stories, and anything that refers to "splendor and intrigue" in its subtitle tends to find its way to my bookshelf.

News for all the People: I saw this on a list of books that were recommended if you wanted to read about the way the media deals with race issues, so I grabbed a secondhand copy because that sounds fascinating to me.

The House Next Door: I was definitely #influenced here...Nicole Cliffe tweeted a couple times about how much she likes this book and though I don't usually go for scary books I decided to take a chance on this one.


The Woman Upstairs: I've read several "best of the decade" lists within the past month, and this showed up on one and seemed interesting enough to grab.

Lady Jane Grey: Eric Ives has a very well-regarded book about Anne Boleyn that I own but have not yet read, so when this book about Lady Jane Grey came up on a Kindle sale I figured it seemed like a good add to my Tudor reading list.

Prozac Nation: Elizabeth Wurtzel just passed, and I realized I'd never actually read this, her most famous work. It went on sale this week so I snatched it up!

Kushiel's Dart: This was another book I got influenced into, as writer Rachel Hawkins recommended it on her twitter feed.

Save Me The Plums: I haven't always loved books about cooking and/or eating, but enough people have said good things about this one that it's worth a try!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Book 216: Stiff

"Cadavers are our superheroes. They brave fire without flinching, withstand falls from tall buildings and head-on car crashes into walls. You can fire a gun at them or run a speedboat over their legs, and it will not faze them. Their heads can be removed with no deleterious effect. They can be in six places at once. I take the Superhuman point of view. What a shame to waste these powers, to not use them for the betterment of humankind."

Dates read: March 13-17, 2018

Rating: 8/10

I feel like one of the formative moments in realizing you're an adult is when you talk to your parents about what they want to happen to them when they die. First of all, realizing your parents are going to die (assuming you're fortunate enough to make it to adulthood without losing one or both of them) is something that's hard to actually wrap your mind around. Obviously you know they and everyone will eventually go, we all do, but thinking about it literally happening is upsetting. And then you start thinking about what to do with your own body after you're done using it and it gets really tricky to deal with.

It takes a skilled hand to write about death and bodies without being either so respectful as to be boring or just morbid. Luckily, Mary Roach has just such a hand and her book, Stiff, is an interesting and wide-ranging look at what happens to us when we die. Well, no one really knows what happens to the soul/spirit/whatever it is that animates us (she does devote a chapter to this, which she develops into a book in its own right, Spook), but our bodies. There's the usual burial/cremation, but Roach is more interested in the options we don't usually consider: donating one's body to science for medical students to practice anatomy on, chemical cremation, even allowing for the use of one's body in automobile crash testing (the dummies aren't nearly realistic enough). Some people even want to be composted. It turns out there are a lot of things your body can get up to!

Death may be a part of life, but it's still a part of life that there are a lot of deep, unprocessed feelings about. This book only works because of the way Roach just nails the tone: there's a deep undercurrent of honest curiosity that's present as she explores her subject. She recounts her own experience sitting with her mother's body after her death and how it made her feel, and doesn't forget that the bodies she sees in her explorations were once someone else's loved one too. She's honest about the ugly side of the point where I found one of the chapters, about using bodies to do research about how the body decomposes under various scenarios (to help law enforcement and pathologists/coroners better estimate how long bodies have been in the elements after death) a little icky. But it never feels gratuitous. She doesn't say something irreverent or gross just for the shock factor. If you've ever wondered what happens to the outside of you when you die, or if you're curious now that you've thought about it, this is an intriguing book and I highly recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: Say Nothing (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Three years ago, I was reading: The Wars of the Roses

Four years ago, I was reading: The Woman Who Would Be King

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: New-To-Me Authors I Read For The First Time In 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week we're featuring bookish discoveries we made last year, and for me, I've always enjoyed chronicling the authors even I can't believe I'd never read before each year. So here are ten authors I read for the first time in 2019!

Antonia Fraser: Her biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey was outstanding and I've been seeking out her other books because she did such a great job taking me into the world just before the French Revolution and giving me the context to understand what was happening.

Salman Rushdie: I feel like Midnight's Children, in all of its richness, is something that will only improve on re-read, and it definitely has me interested in reading more of his work besides!

Patricia Highsmith: I'm not always big into thrillers, but even though I knew how The Talented Mr. Ripley ends, having seen the movie, I got super invested in it. Definitely will be looking to read more in this series, and her books!

Taylor Jenkins Reid: Her contemporary, romance-forward books have been recommended enough that I had a couple on my list already, but I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Daisy Jones and The Six and holy smokes I loved it so much, I'm really looking forward to reading her again!

James Baldwin: I'd had one of his other books on my shelf for a while, but my book club chose If Beale Street Could Talk and I was so happy I got a chance to move him up my list. What a way with words he has.

Albert Camus: I'd technically read parts of his essay about Sisyphus in high school, but I don't think that really counts as having read him before. And I don't know how much I will again: I hated The Stranger.

Bret Easton Ellis: I actually ended up reading two of his books this year: The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho. I often don't care for satire, but his are very well-executed in a way I admired but didn't connect with much. I could read him again but won't seek him out, most likely.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Another case where an author was already on my list with one book but my book club picked a different title that I read first! I found My Year of Rest and Relaxation to be compelling almost despite itself. It's not the sort of thing I usually enjoy and I don't even know if I actually "enjoyed" it per se, but I will probably pick up her other books.

Haruki Murakami: He's one of those authors that seem to have almost a cult following, and I did find The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle engaging. But it was weird, and a little too heavy on the magical realism for me, and I'd try him again but I'm not sure I'm 100% on-board.

Junot Diaz: He has been credibly accused of sexual harassment, and the misogyny wasn't hard to see in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But it's also a really great book. He's a super talented writer.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Book 215: Court Justice

 "They put you on TV, brochures, and websites. Your name appears on replica jerseys that sell for over a hundred dollars. And you can't get a dime from any of it because when you were seventeen years old you somehow waived away your rights, permanently and forever, as a condition of NCAA eligibility and thus a condition of getting a college scholarship and affording school. That's not 'amateurism'. That's exploitation." 
Dates read: March 11-13, 2018

Rating: 3/10

If you dated boys in college in the 2000s, I'd be willing to bet a reasonable amount of money that you sometimes watched them play EA Sports' NCAA Football (or the equivalent basketball game). We all did, because it seemed like all the boys played it. I worked at a Blockbuster during college, and I still remember how quickly copies of that game would go whenever the new edition came out. People loved to control the destiny of their favorite team and their favorite names were displayed on the jerseys, but if you knew the numbers, it was easy to tell who was supposed to be who.

The last editions of these games came out in 2013, and the enormously popular series may never be renewed. Why? The primary reason is a lawsuit, O'Bannon v. NCAA, in which the courts essentially held that if the NCAA is going to sell and profit from the images of current and former athletes, it needs to compensate them for doing so. But the NCAA's rules around amateurism bar compensation beyond college scholarships and some cost-of-attendance support, so the games have ceased production. It's more complicated than that, but that's basically the situation. And in Court Justice, lead plaintiff Ed O'Bannon tells his side of the story, both in regards to the lawsuit itself, and his life as an athlete.

I am very interested in the lawsuit and the workings of college athletics in generally, but I am not at all interested in Ed O'Bannon (who I'd literally never heard of before I became aware of the lawsuit), so I'd been hoping for an emphasis on the legal part rather than his college and career. That was probably naive on my part...O'Bannon (with co-writer Michael McCann), not a lawyer or other broader expert, is the author, so it's naturally strongly focused on his experience. And I don't know if he himself did a lot of the writing or it was an editorial decision to keep the finished product as close to his own words as possible, but either way it doesn't quite work: the writing quality here is weak.

The entire book is basically framed through a device in which O'Bannon recounts a stage of the lawsuit, then (usually clumsily) segues into an anecdote from his life. This is not particularly effective, as the narratives feel disconnected and neither builds up much momentum. O'Bannon is unfamiliar with the legal system and it shows: he takes things like the NCAA lawyers trying to trip him up in deposition personally, when the reality is that that's how litigation works. He feels like the higher level federal courts are for "the elite" because they're in fancier buildings than state courts. His perspective as an outsider adds precious little to an understanding of the mechanics and legally successful arguments of the case.

What it does do well is force one to consider the perspectives of the athletes, and how very real the feelings of exploitation are when you're barely able to scrape together enough to have the basics while watching coaching salaries explode and facilities become ever-more luxurious. Someone is doing the labor that makes the system profitable, and it's not the people who are the sole profiteers. When you add in the racial dynamics (an overwhelmingly white athletics administrative and authority structure, with overwhelmingly black athletes in the revenue sports), there's another dimension to the unfairness. O'Bannon touches on this, but never really develops it and that's honestly frustrating. There's a really interesting examination of the issue of compensation for college athletes (I personally support the Olympic model, in which athletes would be able to seek outside endorsements), but this book isn't it. Unless you've got a deep and abiding interest in Ed O'Bannon and a high tolerance for poor-quality prose, I'd avoid it.

One year ago, I was reading: The Winter of the Witch (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Three years ago, I was reading: American Heiress

Four years ago, I was reading: Mr. Splitfoot

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, my least-favorite biannual topic: upcoming releases! Like I mentioned in my December monthly wrap-up post, I read over 80% backlist, and like to chose books that have stood the test of time. But I do have 2020 releases that have made my list to read, so here are the ones coming out before the end of June, all of which I am fortunate enough to have review copies of!

Followers: This one will be my first 2020 release of the year. It's a speculative fiction about women getting wrapped up in the world of influncers and social media and seems like a thought-provoking, engaging read.

The Holdout: As a former lawyer, I've always been interested in stories about trials and juries, and so this seems right up my alley. After a holdout juror swings the verdict towards not-guilty in a high profile trial, the jurors come back together for a true crime documentary years later. And then one of them ends up dead. I'm usually a person who prefers character over plot, but this seems like the kind of twisty I could get into.

The Magical Language of Others: A memoir in letters from a mother who leaves her teenage daughter behind in America to return to her native South Korea, this seems like it will be heart-tugging.

Every Reason We Shouldn't: Contemporary romance not usually my genre, but I can never resist a skating angle, so this story about two teenagers who connect at the rink is on my list!

Hidden Valley Road: I was a psychology major, so a book about mental illness research will always grab my attention. This book examines the story of one seemingly-average family who had 12 children, half of whom were eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic, and the role they played in scientific investigation into the causes of this disease.

The Body Double: Another subject area that will almost always catch my eye is the nature of celebrity and fame, so this fictional tale of a young woman hired to impersonate a reclusive Hollywood star who had a nervous breakdown is intriguing.

My Dark Vanessa: This has already gotten a good amount of pre-publication buzz, and promises to tell a compelling story about a woman who finds herself re-evaluating the relationship she had with a teacher when she was in high school, that she felt in control of at the time but is no longer sure about.

Run Me To Earth: I enjoy reading fiction about areas of the world I'd like to learn more about, and southeast Asia is a region I'm definitely under-educated in. This book is about three orphans in Laos in the 1960s, who grow close and then are split across the world when they're evacuated from their homeland, and sounds really interesting!

The Companions: I've always had a soft spot for dystopias, but they have to have a good concept. This one, about a world where one's conciousness can be uploaded before death into various robots to either continue on with one's family (for the lucky) or just rented out for anyone by the company that controls the technology, has caught my eye!

Lakewood: Another dystopian novel, this looks at the history of medical experimentation on people of color by telling a story about a young black woman looking to help her family who finds a job that seems too good to be true. There's a great salary, free housing, and more...she just has to volunteer to be a secret lab rat. Definitely sounds like something that I'd appreciate reading!

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Book 214: Exit West

"His eyes rolled terribly. Yes: terribly. Or perhaps not so terribly. Perhaps they merely glanced about him, at the woman, at the bed, at the room. Growing up in the not infrequently perilous circumstances in which he had grown up, he was aware of the fragility of his body. He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough. He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing."

Dates read: March 9-11, 2018

Rating: 10/10

I don't have to go too far back on either side of my family to find immigrants. On my mom's side, my grandmother left her native Austria as a young woman, and on my dad's side, my great-grandfather came over from Poland as a teenager. Neither were what would be considered particularly desirable immigrants: great-grandpa was illiterate in his native Polish and spoke no English at the time of arrival, and grandma was a Jewish woman without higher education at a time when America was not especially welcoming of Jewish immigrants. But arrive here they both did, and carved out lives for themselves, and started families, and here I am a couple generations later, an American writing this blog.

As long as there are parts of the world that experience war, famine, and oppression, there will be immigrants and refugees. Mohsin Hamid's short, delicate Exit West tells a story about two of them, Saeed and Nadia, with a small magical realism twist: people move between countries through doors that appear, seemingly at random. People go through them, but they don't come back, so you don't know exactly where you're going until you get there. You just know that it's not where you are, and for many people, that's enough. Including our central couple, young people in a never-named, seemingly majority-Muslim city. Nadia covers herself from collarbone to toe in a long robe although such attire is not mandatory...but she's an atheist who smokes pot and is sexually active. Saeed is more traditional, but still far from devout. They meet in a class and sparks start to fly...but then so do bullets as insurgents begin to battle the government in their city, too.

Soon, they're left with little choice but to flee if they want any hope for the future. As they enter first Mykonos, and then London, thousands of others are doing the same. Hamid tosses little side vignettes of other refugees into his story, showing how people react to the new reality: some respond with fear and violence, but others build unexpected connections. As more and more people come streaming across borders, tension between the native populations of the countries experiencing an inflow and the desperate masses who've arrived begin to build. But cracks begin to form between Saeed and Nadia, as they find themselves taking different approaches to life in their new reality.

There's something fairy-tale-esque about this story, and it's not just because of Hamid's absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous writing. Maybe it's in how Saeed and Nadia are given personalities, but still feel symbolic. Maybe it's the way Hamid "zooms out", as it were, every so often to give us a fuller view outside of their story. Maybe it's the familiar beats of love, and loss, and a journey. Maybe it's the undeniable sense of optimism. Maybe it's the elegance of the narrative. It's probably a little bit of all of the above.

I'll admit that I was wary when I heard that this book has a magical realism element, as that doesn't usually appeal to me. But I found myself grabbed by Saeed and Nadia, and their growing bond, and their reluctant flight from home, and their struggles to make new lives for themselves. And the device of the doors makes for a certain efficiency that works with the overall flow of the I said above, there's a real elegance to it, every word and plot detail seems like the product of a deliberate choice to include it. So using doors allows us to skip all the tedium of the mechanical aspects of getting from point A to point B. I was both charmed and deeply moved by this book and now I need to read everything else Hamid's ever written because this was amazing. I'd recommend this book to everyone.

One year ago, I was reading: The Cuckoo's Calling (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Fourth of July Creek

Three years ago, I was reading: The King Must Die

Four years ago, I was reading: Thirst