Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Club: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is the true story of a woman (Henrietta Lacks) who died in the 1950s and what was done with the cells taken from her cervix before she died of cervical cancer. HeLa cells (as they're called in the medical and scientific communities) have been used to study everything from polio to atom bombs. Her family first found out over twenty years after scientists and doctors began to study HeLa cells, and after many bad experiences with doctors, reporters, and others, they were wary to talk to Skloot about their experiences and their memories of Henrietta. Once they realized that Skloot wanted to learn about Henrietta and HeLa cells for some of the same reasons they did, however, they helped her discover things she never expected.

First Impression: I like the comfortable way in which Skloot writes. She knows Henrietta's story inside-and-out. She's been studying it for a good chunk of her life. I'm not a very scientific person, so this is an unusual book for me, but I'm finding the technical side of the book interesting as well.

Conclusion: I listened to the Random House Audio unabridged version, which was read by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin. Having two narrators provided for good contrast between Skloot's words and those she recorded from the Lacks family and friends. I have never been very good at science in school. So when I say I enjoyed this novel, you'll know one of two things: 1) not much science was involved, or 2) everything scientific was fully explained and well-integrated with the other parts of the story. The second one is true of Skloot's book. She finds a really great balance between the story of the HeLa cells and the story of the Lacks family. Obviously, the discovery that HeLa cells were being grown and sold for profit over twenty years after Henrietta's death was a huge blow to the family. They weren't even told enough to know how they felt about it for a long time. Skloot recognized that their story played a big part in the book she wanted to write, and she fit it all together seamlessly. The writing style itself has a good storytelling quality for those of us who are used to reading fiction. Another thing I was really glad the author didn't overlook was straightforward organization of the book. Skloot set it across a timeline, starting with Henrietta's childhood and ending with her own book being published. She also clearly stated where we were on the timeline when there was a shift, which is something I've sadly missed in many nonfiction books I've read. I expected to be bored by this book, but I wasn't at all. I would definitely recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, even if you don't read very much nonfiction or know very much about science and cells.

This is a book I read for the book club that I attend in person. I'm working on some tweaks and also some big changes for the blog, so keep your eyes open! Also, if you have any suggestions, please feel free to share. I don't just write these reviews for myself!

Monday, May 20, 2013

P&P Challenge: Lost in Austen (2008) with Elliot Cowan and Jemima Rooper

I did not like the first half of the movie Lost in Austen. I wasn't a big fan of the acting at that point, and everything seemed very casual and a little confusing. However, this is one of those times when the end of the movie completely redeems the rest.

Where I agree with Elizabeth's actions in Pride and Prejudice, I disagree with Amanda's actions in Lost in Austen. She encourages candor and excitement wherever she goes, however, and that brings about an acceptable (if somewhat altered) resolution to the story. I think the actors became much more comfortable in their roles as they played the parts out, because I thought the acting fit perfectly toward the conclusion. The girl playing Jane did the best in my opinion, but I have yet to find any interpretation of Austen's novel where Jane was not in the top five. And Mrs. Bennet's role was completely different from the usual! While we always see a side of her that is focused on seeing her daughters married, this one certainly had a more ruthless and straightforward edge to her. At first this rubbed me the wrong way, but I realize it's just another interpretation of how her character might be up close and personal.

The three altered characters I really didn't like were Charlotte Lucas, Georgiana Darcy, and Mr. Collins. While Charlotte takes a stand for herself and sets off to be independent as a missionary, she is basically a miserable creature who has no other choice. She doesn't even seem to have the sensible composure I've come to know and love from the original character. Georgiana Darcy is basically a selfish child. When she doesn't get what she wants, she ruins someone else's life over it? That's not the sweet young woman I remember, although it does provide a happy alternative of character for George Wickham. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins is a pretentious, bumbling man, but he's not impossible to stand. He's not a romantic choice for a husband, but he is an acceptable one (for Charlotte anyway). In Lost in Austen, Mr. Collins is a disgusting creature. I'm not even sure how to describe him, because it makes me shudder just to think about it. Suffice it to say you would NEVER in a million years want to be his wife, or even the person to whom he's speaking, because he might be touching your hand or looking at you.

Overall, Amanda Price is pretty much what you never would but probably should expect from a modern, dissatisfied Austen fan thrown into the world of Pride and Prejudice in a different way and for a much longer time than she had originally planned. In the end (after the incredibly redeeming second half), I really enjoyed this movie. Because of the difference in the first and second halves, I'm halfway between keeping it and giving it to a friend.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Name Challenge: A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is about a professor and researcher of alchemical history, Diana Bishop, who also happens to be a witch. Ever since the murder of her parents when she was a child, Diana does not use her magic; instead, she focuses on living her life as a human, but she never quite blends in. While studying some manuscripts in the university library one day, she accidentally unlocks a magical binding on an old alchemical manuscript which describes the secret to the philosopher's stone as well as some very powerful, as-yet-unknown information about "creatures." Harkness separates the individuals living on Earth into two categories: humans and creatures. Creatures consist of vampires, witches, and daemons, each category typically staying away from those in the other two categories. After Diana unlocks this manuscript, however, creatures from all over the world are drawn to her for one purpose or another. And when Matthew Clairmont, a vampire, starts following her around and asking her questions about the manuscript and herself, she begins to discover that there is much more to learn about the world of creatures and her place in that world.

First Impression: Harkness's novel is both surprising and familiar. She takes old ideas and gives them a new spin. Witches, vampires, and daemons, for example, are not really as they would be in a different book. Harkness makes them more similar to humans than one might expect, and she addresses the scientific side of why these creatures are the way they are, which I find incredibly interesting and unique. The author stays true to the third-person limited point-of-view, and I don't always know what is going on, but I like the underlying feel of mystery. Also, every once in a while there is a chapter told from Matthew's or someone else's point-of-view, which clears up enough of the mystery so that it does not become frustrating. I like being personally involved with at least two characters--it gives a sense of balance that I don't always find in a first-person narrative. There are a few things niggling at the back of my mind right now, but I am going to wait until I'm further along to comment on them in case they are not consistent.

Conclusion: The bookmark I was using while reading this book says, "'Fall into a good book!' --Penworthy Bear." This is going to sound cheesy, but I definitely felt as though I "fell into" this book. Harkness's novel was 579 pages but it felt like 50. I became so absorbed in what was going on that pages went by when I wasn't noticing--I had no idea how much I had read at the end of each day, only how much had occurred in the storyline and character development. Kudos to Deborah Harkness! I cannot wait to read more of this series!

I will allow myself a little rant here, because there's a common problem I've noticed in a lot of dark fantasy books, TV shows, etc that I've seen recently: vampires treating humans like possessions. This isn't always the case, but it permeates a lot of stories, and it's always a male vampire w/ a female human or witch or whatever. You have these strong female characters who claim they are independent and don't need a relationship, but then they come to a point where they have to make a choice: to be bossed around (and not just in a bossy, we can argue about this and come to a compromise way, but being told what to do and threatened otherwise) or to part ways with the man they care about. And they always choose to be bossed around! In my opinion, it doesn't matter if that guy saved her life, she needs to think for herself. Really, it's the final, "No matter what you say, my word will win out," that bugs me. There should be room for compromise. Secondly, why does everyone suddenly acquiesce to all of the killing? Sure, if someone is literally choking you to death, I can see defending yourself or letting your boyfriend at them. But they threaten you from afar and your boyfriend kills them, and suddenly it's no big deal because at least he's doing it out of love for you? No. Okay, I'm finished with my feminist rant. I will say that when Matthew and Diana drifted into this state of mind, it didn't last for very long, so I was able to continue enjoying the book.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed A Discovery of Witches and will read it again at some point. If you like fantasy (even you typically only read mass-market-sized books from a long series), you will like this.