Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [2010]

I am not very comfortable with stories about mothers dying of cancer. It hits way too close to home, and it's something I'd prefer not to think about at all. Ever. However, since I know that approach is not only unrealistic, but unhealthy for me as well, once in a while I challenge myself with something that I know will probably be painful. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, met that criterion, as well as being well reviewed and available on CD: Win-win-win! I have also been trying to read a bit more nonfiction lately, especially since I enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher so thoroughly.

Immortal Life is the kind of "relaxed" nonfiction in which the author-narrator takes us on a voyage of discovery that infuses dry, scientific facts with the flavor of human interest. Journalist Skloot had been fascinated as a student by the mystery of the woman behind the HeLa cell line, which has been used to develop the polio vaccine and test cancer therapies, and for a host of other biomedical advances over the last sixty years. Scientists have spent entire careers working with HeLa, but virtually none of them (not to mention the general public) were aware that the relentlessly growing cells originated from an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks.

In 1951, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and a doctor at the Johns Hopkins clinic removed part of the tumor (without her knowledge or consent) before she was treated with radiation therapy. The sample of her cancerous cells grew "like nothing anyone had seen, doubling their numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions." Scientists had been struggling to develop self-perpetuating cell lines for years, and Henrietta's cells provided them with an endlessly growing crop on which to perform experiments (some of them vicious and illegal, such as when Henrietta's cancerous cells were injected into healthy patients without their consent). HeLa, as the cells became known, soon spread to laboratories around the world.

In the meantime, the Lacks family had lost Henrietta to a brutally painful death from uremia soon after radiation treatments failed to cure her cancer. Her autopsy revealed that tumors "the size of baseballs had nearly replaced her kidneys, bladder, ovaries, and uterus. And her other organs were so covered in small white tumors it looked as if someone had filled her with pearls." Her children, most notably Deborah Lacks, around whom Skloot frames her story, grew up knowing almost nothing about their mother. It was decades before the Lacks family (struggling to survive in Baltimore) was made aware of the existence of HeLa, which by that point had become a profit-making enterprise and scientific standard. Deborah's brothers reacted with anger, but Deborah was fueled by a desire to discover everything she possibly could about her mother and her dead sister, Elsie, who had been institutionalized and died in the 1950s.

As Skloot comes to a careful truce with the Lacks family and helps Deborah on the slow and painful road to knowing her mother, she intersperses chapters on the scientific developments of cell culture and the discoveries it facilitated. Skloot strikes a careful balance between ethics and the importance of scientific research as she investigates the history of informed consent and presents the "science" part of the story in approachable prose. The combination of these informational chapters with the narrative of Henrietta and Deborah is amazingly effective. I would definitely recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to anyone interested in accessible nonfiction, the history of medicine, African-American history, or just someone looking for a good, moving story. I admit, I cried more than once while listening in the car.

Grade: A

Random Thoughts:

One of the most amazing things about this story is the fact that so many of the principals were still alive, despite the fact that Lacks died in 1951. For example, Skloot was able to interview the doctor who examined Henrietta and removed her cells. Lab assistants, researchers, family members, and others who were touched by Lacks (or HeLa) were still available for Skloot's research. The book was at least ten years in the making, and at times yielded some amazing and improbable discoveries, especially where Deborah's sister Elsie was concerned. It makes me wonder what on earth Skloot will write about next, since she became a primary character in Immortal Life.

Skloot is donating proceeds from the sale of the book to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which has just given out its first grants to some of Henrietta's descendants.

I listened to the book on audio CD, and the narrator was certainly able, but I would also recommend picking up the book to see the eight  pages of color photographs, which do a great deal to bring life to the people that Skloot describes.

I may be the only one who thought this, but if there had been another season of The Wire, they could have centered it around the interaction between Johns Hopkins and the citizens of Baltimore.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: Fierce Overture [2010]

I first became familiar with Gun Brooke many years ago through her online J/7 fanfiction, and her career as a novelist has since taken off. She now has five novels published, all set in the same world and featuring some of the same characters. In addition, Brooke creates the art for her own book covers, which I think is an intriguing way to see what the author feels is important about the narrative (in this case: very little clothing! Performing!).

Fierce Overture, the latest in the series, features a high-powered music executive--Helena Forsythe--who is having difficulties with one of her superstars, the young, beautiful, and extremely successful Noelle Laurent. Helena has spent her life focusing on her career and feels that Noelle's desire to sing her own soulful music, rather than the bubbly pop she is known for, would be a bad business decision both for Noelle and Helena's company. As the CEO, Helena has the last word, but things are quickly complicated by her growing attraction to Noelle, who is nothing at all like the party girl she has been painted in the tabloids. After a passionate night together, each woman finds herself reassessing her career and emotional life. But Helena's inability to commit to supporting Noelle's dream means that their burgeoning relationship could easily turn to heartbreak.

Grade: B+

Random Thoughts:

I like Brooke's series, and it's nice to see the progress that characters like Carolyn Black and Annelie Peterson have made since they got together in the first book. However, I felt that Helena perhaps changed her mind one too many times about Noelle's right to record her own music. Will she approve it? Won't she? The story relied a little too heavily on this question when it could have possibly diversified and thrown a different obstacle in the couple's path. The sex scenes were definitely above average, including one that involved cell phones and bathtubs.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: I think so, but not 100% sure.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Meditation on Writing

In case anyone has noticed my relative silence over here for the past few weeks, it's not because I have become suddenly shy again (as far as I know I am still a newly-minted extrovert). On the contrary, I have been engaged in a not-so-secret project that involves writing at least 50,000 words in the month of November and calling it a novel. At first I thought, "oh, I'll try this and get bored with it like I usually do and that will be that." But just past the halfway point, I've got over 26,000 words written--and not just one word repeated 26,000 times--and I think I might actually make the deadline. It's not something that I ever expected to happen, and I'm still a little cautious about discussing it at all, in case that causes me to self-destruct. I am very good at enthusiastically starting projects and historically pathetic at bringing them to a satisfying close. So: cautious optimism. As I've been forcing myself to write the required 1,667 words a day, I've also been thinking about my history as a writer.

I have consistently been a voracious reader, but writing was something I only did in fits and starts throughout my childhood. I am still quite proud of the short story I wrote some (cough) years back from the point-of-view of a Rain-Blo bubble gum ball, even though the story itself may longer exist.1 As a young adult with no actual ability to make geeky friends who were my age, I spent a great deal of time generating D&D characters . . . but never actually played the game. To this date I still have not played D&D once (much less an entire campaign), but that's OK, I suspect that character generation (and character names) might be the best part. Then I went to college, and all of my writing time was taken up with things called 'papers', some of which didn't actually feel like work.2

After graduate school (Master's #1), I worked two simultaneous jobs as a technical writer, so there still wasn't much space in my life for "fun" writing. However, despite not liking to read short stories all that much, I used to write them, in the form of fan-fiction, for other people to read on the internet. Most of the archive sites for these stories seem to have mercifully disappeared, and I'm not going to say much more about that. However, I do still have a t-shirt that vaguely references that time of my life, so as long as I keep it I will always have a gentle reminder that I used to be passionate about TV. Eventually I developed this blog as an outlet for my desire to write. It allows me to keep up on my more formal prose with book reviews, and once in a while do a little navel gazing.

I've always had a secret desire to write a romance novel, and have a rough half-dozen started on various forms of media that are now obsolete and therefore inaccessible to me.3 When I started reading my mother's romance novels as a kid, I felt that I was enough of a judge of quality to arrogantly think "hey, I could do this!" I mean, who hasn't picked up a "trashy" romance and thought that they could produce something equally bad, if not slightly better? This month is my opportunity to finally put my money where my mouth is. At some point (in September or October), I volunteered to write a novel that will probably only appeal to a very small subset of people, but which will make me happy to write. And I think that's what actually matters.

1It may actually still exist; there's a lot of stuff in the garage. But that's another post entirely. If I find it someday, I'll be sure to post it here, so STAY TUNED. In the meantime (spoiler alert), if I remember correctly, it doesn't end well for our gumball hero.

2My favorite papers were for Literary Theory. One involved ten pages of deconstruction applied to the message inside a Cadbury chocolate egg wrapper, and the other was a discussion of "Jesse's Girl" as a tale of homosocial desire (we had been reading Sedgwick). For the opportunity to write these, I have to give all the credit to my friend and mentor Dr. Tromp, the same person who facilitated footnote 3.

3The same is true of my 120+ page senior thesis on Emily Brontë, but I like to think that I could recover that with the help of OCR from my hard copy, if ever there was an emergency in which my scholarship--DIGITIZED--was the only hope for humanity. For reference, the title is: 'Through life and death, a chainless soul': Emily Brontë's Poetic Reconfiguration of Romanticism, Female Authorship, and the Critical Paradigm. Available only in one college library in Ohio, my living room, and my father's house. Oh, to be young again.

Meditation Index

Monday, November 15, 2010

Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest [2010]

The cliffhanger ending of The Girl Who Played with Fire left me relatively eager to read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest when it came out earlier this year, completing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. I know, I know, there's a possible fourth book, but it sounds like those will be mired in legal battles for the rest of time, so it's good that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest wrapped up a lot of the loose ends. Things being as they usually are, I got the hardback from the library when it came out, had to return it because I ran out of time, and instead listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Vance! As I believe I expressed in another review, anything read by Simon Vance is an automatic WIN as far as I am concerned. I must confess, toward the end I was lugging my CDs from my car to my house so that I could keep listening. But after I was finished, I had to get the book back through ILL so that I could write this review and get all the Swedish spellings right. The things I go through for my art! [dramatic swoon]

The backstory of the second and third books is complicated enough that it is explained over and over again to new characters who are being brought in on the case, and I will try to summarize as best I can. Lisbeth Salander, our anti-heroine from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is the daughter of an ex-Russian spy, Alexander Zalachenko, who had been protected by the Swedish secret police for years in exchange for valuable information on Soviet activities. This ongoing operation was carried out in complete secret by a very small group within the secret police known as the Section. Unfortunately, Zalachenko was an abusive bastard who regularly beat Salander's mother, eventually to the point where she was permanently disabled. The Section regularly cleaned up after this and other messes to make sure that his identity remained secret. Receiving no help from the authorities, Salander took matters into her own hands and firebombed her father when she was twelve, then was committed to a mental institution to keep anyone from believing her stories about Zalachenko. Most, if not all, of Salander's subsequent troubles (being assigned a guardian who raped her, for example) are a direct result of the Section's attempts to keep the Zalachenko story under wraps.

When the action of the third novel begins, Salander is in the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head (inflicted by her father), and Zalachenko is recovering in the room down the hall because she didn't quite manage to kill him with an axe to the face. It's a time of family bonding. With Salander slated to go to trial and Zalachenko threatening to expose everything, the aging members of the Section take swift action to head off threats to their anonymity, resulting in the deaths of several people. The story is an intricate tangle that intrepid Millennium magazine reporter Mikael Blomkvist must work day and night to unravel (with a double-digit supporting cast) before time runs out for Salander. The book's major subplot involves Millennium editor Erika Berger moving to take over editorial duties at Svenska Morgon-Posten, a prestigious career move that unfortunately results in her being sexually harassed.

Phew. After reading The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, I have now spent more time than I ever thought I would contemplating the workings of the Swedish secret police.

As I said above, the details of the Section's past and the slow process of tracking them down is a part of the novel that grows a bit wearing after the tenth time or so. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a novel of small details. Larsson thought that people's stories were fascinating, so every character we meet (and there are many) is provided with a backstory, sometimes an extensive one. At times this careful explication bogs down the pace of the novel, and sometimes it provides additional depth. If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller stuffed with action, this is not the book for you. Berger's stalker subplot does provide some intermediate thrills while Blomkvist and Salander are busy working out their strategy for clearing her name and getting her full legal rights, but it is a resolution that unfolds in a courtroom, at a trial that takes nearly 500 pages to set up. For me, it was a worthwhile payoff after three books in the making.

Grade: B+

Random thoughts:

One of the best things about Larsson's books is the number and depth of the female characters. Certainly they are idealized; his women are usually victims and rarely villains, but it is a sad commentary on the rest of our fiction that having so many female police officers, lawyers, newspaper editors, etc. should be remarkable. Apart from Lisbeth Salander herself, who is a sort of manic pixie hacker girl that everyone feels sympathy for, despite her antisocial ways, Berger is a strong character who is given particular depth in this last novel. In addition, Blomkvist's sister Annika Giannini is enormously sympathetic as Salander's lawyer, while Larsson also spends a great deal of time examining the thoughts and motivations of two female police officers, Modig and Figuerola, as well as the security agent Susanne Linder. I do find it annoying, however, that women keep falling in love with Blomkvist. I suppose it adds a romantic element to the book, but it made my eyes roll more than it made my heart flutter.

It may sound silly, but it's kind of fascinating to read about Swedish history and politics and wonder how much of what Larsson is writing about is true. What if the United States had a department of Constitutional Protection? I also enjoy reading a crime novel in which the bad guys, especially the really bad guys, get their just desserts. Larsson isn't afraid to torture or kill off good people, but the major losses are definitely on the other side of the equation.

As I mentioned above, a lot of the loose ends were tied up in this volume, particularly those that had to do with Salander's family history. One important character that is left open-ended, however, is Salander's twin sister, who presumably is as clever and possibly as amoral as Lisbeth. It's a shame that Larsson died before he could write more books in the series, because it would be interesting to see where he planned to take it from this (relatively peaceful) point.

ETA: I think that Reg Keeland, who translated the books from the Swedish, did a great job. I don't think translators get enough props, given that the words they choose have such a huge impact on the atmosphere of a book.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Sunday, November 7, 2010

TV Review: The Mentalist Season One [2009]

Probable murderer: "You have no legal proof."

The Mentalist: "Legal proof will be found, no doubt. But personally, I don't need it. I just like to know that I'm right."

It has been a while since I've been sucked in to a new show, especially a procedural like The Mentalist, which is similar to several shows out there (Psych and Lie to Me, for example). What makes the difference is the main character, Patrick Jane, who is played with quirky panache by Simon Baker. Jane is a consultant to the CBI (California Bureau of Investigation), which takes cases when local police are unable to make headway. But he is also a former celebrity psychic, a charlatan whose family was murdered by the serial killer, Red John, whom Jane had verbally emasculated on national television. Jane blames himself for the death of his wife and daughter, and keeps himself sane by helping to track down bad guys, all the while hoping for leads to further his private revenge on Red John. He uses keen observation, hypnosis, odd mannerisms, ruses, tricks . . . anything he can to further an investigation, sometimes methods that are beyond the bounds of believability or propriety.

As a consultant, Jane exists in a grey area that the rest of his team members, led by a ferociously professional yet deeply sympathetic Teresa Lisbon (known to me from her work in that excellent movie The Craft), are not allowed to tread. The rest of the team consists of the dour Cho, beefcake Rigsby, and Grace van Pelt, who is a new hire at the start of the series. Yes, they are all beautiful people. Cho is usually the sole person of color in any given episode. What I like most is the banter between the characters, particularly between the whimsical Jane and the eye-rolling (but secretly enjoying herself) Lisbon. I think I might have a thing for deeply flawed yet hilariously clever protagonists (see Lorelei Gilmore), and Patrick Jane definitely fits that description. Yet his veneer of urbane humanity disguises the pain and thirst for revenge that sometimes bubbles to the surface.

Season One (which I watched on DVD, although I had caught some of the episodes during their initial airing) does a good job of introducing the characters, the premise, and the way the unit operates, as well as gradually delving deeper into Jane's traumatic past and obsession with Red John. Some of the episodes are take-them-or-leave-them monsters of the week, but many manage to be both morally grey and touching, such as when Jane explains in a casual way to Lisbon that he will be tearing Red John apart with his own hands when they finally track him down. Such is the character's determination and the depth of his trauma that you believe he will accomplish his goal; in some ways, he can be so cavalier about the rules and regulations of his job because it is only a means to his final end. If allowed to develop, the series will inevitably lead to some confrontation between Jane and Red John in which it will be revealed whether Jane's basic humanity has been permanently compromised, and whether he will throw his life away in the process.

Within the arc of the Red John/Patrick Jane story, other plot lines are teased out, such as Rigsby and van Pelt's attraction (strictly against the rules), van Pelt's knowledge of cars and sports, Cho's criminal youth, and Rigsby's painful past.

Grade: A-

Even without interesting plots and back story, I would still like the show because of it's tendency toward silliness, especially Jane's childlike joy. And the outfits: I really like everyone's clothes.

Agent Lisbon, about Patrick Jane: "Is there a word for uncanny and irritating?"