Friday, April 29, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Review



I've been wanting to read this book forever!  I've had it on my kindle for years and for whatever reason it kept getting passed over.  Unfortunately, I feel like what I did to this book, forgetting and neglecting it for years, is what actually happened and continues to happen to the memory of Henrietta Lacks and of course, her descendants.

What an important story.  Henrietta Lacks was a beautiful woman who was the victim of a system that didn't view or treat her as an equal member of society because of her race.  But as the reader learns, no one has the rights to their tissues.  It's true that now patients have to at least provide "informed consent" but Henrietta didn't even have that option.  She wasn't asked or consulted, but a piece of her cervical cancer tumor was cut from her body and has been used by scientists ever since.  She was the first ever example of "immortal cells", meaning her cells didn't die.  They kept on multiplying.  They've been at the forefront of many medical discoveries, including the vaccine for polio.  They've been in space and they're used in laboratories all over the world.

What I love about this book is that in addition to educating the reader about the science and importance of cells, it illuminates that the cells were once part of a PERSON, a woman who had five children, who she loved very much.  She knew she was dying and she wanted them to have the best care possible.  Unfortunately, they all had a very difficult childhood. Tragically, her eldest daughter, Elsie, was forgotten in an institution for the mentally ill/disabled and died not long after her mother.  Her other children were raised in a neglectful and abusive household until they were saved by their eldest brother and his wife.

These children grew up into adults who were angry at the way that their mother was treated and how they were treated, as inconsequential.  Companies who mass-produce and transport HeLa cells, as they're called, make millions (maybe billions) off their mother but they live in poverty.  Where is the justice or fairness in that?

Something that wasn't explicitly stated in the book but I surmised on my own is that Henrietta didn't have to die the way she did.  Her cervical cancer came about as a result of the HPV virus.  Well, as we know, HPV is sexually transmitted.  It was common knowledge that Henrietta's husband was an indiscriminate cheater and gave her any number of STDs, including syphilis.  That bastard killed his wife because in addition to not being able to keep it in his pants, he couldn't be bothered to wear a condom.  That makes me so angry!  She was 31 when she died.

Needless to say, reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was an amazing but often very sad journey.  She deserved better and her family members deserve better, too.  So much of the book is the author trying to win over Henrietta's adult children to trust her enough to tell their mother's story.  Not surprisingly, they had a very difficult time giving her their trust and often, they would get spooked and take it back.  It's not as though Johns Hopkins (the hospital that treated their mother and cut from her tumor) made it easy for them to trust medical scientists or white people, for that matter.

I definitely recommend it.  It's an important read and it brings up many ethical questions. Most significantly, it sheds light on the woman, Henrietta Lacks, behind the cells.        

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Review



Ugh.  What can I say about The Picture of Dorian Gray?  It took me over a month to read a 165-page book.  It was a painful and slow process.  I ended up skimming the last thirty pages.

I found a lot of the language to be overwrought and gratuitous.  I liked the overall concept but I didn't enjoy the process to get there or the characters or the "story", which really isn't a story.  It's more or less a cautionary tale on narcissism/vanity.

Dorian Gray would've really liked Facebook.  He would've been posting selfies all the live long day.

Needless to say, I didn't enjoy it but now I can mark it off my list.  On to the next!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Kind Worth Killing - Review



The Kind Worth Killing is in the same vein as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train.  Gone Girl is by the far the most psychologically bizarre and disturbed whereas the female protagonist in The Girl on the Train is mostly pathetic.  I would classify the lead in The Kind Worth Killing, Lily Kintner, as a sociopath.  I'm not really giving anything away because you learn about her justifications for killing pretty early on.  When I described the plot to my husband he said it made him think of Dexter (the book series turned Showtime show) and it was a good comparison.  I can't say I totally disagree with her reasons for killing - she generally kills those who are morally corrupt and mostly bad people.  That being said it's not for mortals to judge who is good or bad.  That's the main flaw in her system.  

I was instantly hooked and drawn in by the characters and the device of switching off voices every chapter.  The excitement kept building and building and I got more and more invested in finding out how it was all going to end.  Unfortunately, that was the most disappointing part of the experience.  I loved the journey but once I reached the destination I was surprised at how anticlimactic it felt.  I won't give anything away but it did feel abrupt and in a way, unsatisfying.

I'd still recommend the book because it was a mostly enjoyable experience.  It's not even that the ending was "bad", it just wasn't what I was expecting for such a suspenseful story.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Hoda Kotb Book Signing

It's neat but a year after attending a book review/presentation by one author I was lucky enough to attend a book signing by Hoda Kotb at my alma mater.

It was a wonderful experience.  She's such a positive and inspirational force.  She didn't really promote her book per se, which I liked, but she did relay some of her life lessons that tie into the theme of her book, Where We Belong.

She talked about graduating from college (Virginia Tech) and immediately lining up a job interview in Richmond, VA.  She arrived with her tape and plotted out where she was going to sit and who she was going to date, without any thought of being rejected.  Well, she was. She took a ten-day road trip all around the southern United States to be rejected a whooping 27 times!  Then, in a God-wink kind of moment, she got lost in Greenville, Mississippi on her way back home.  She saw a literal sign advertising a local CBS station and thought, well, I'll go in and get rejected, but at least I'll leave with a map.  As fortune would have it, she was not rejected but in fact, embraced and hired.  She told us that you only need one person to like you and give you a chance and obviously, you can't give up until you find that person.

It was a great story of perseverance and determination.  And she also relayed how fear inspired the biggest risks in her life and how they paid off.  She said she'd hang back and not really go for things but after surviving a divorce and breast cancer she realized she had nothing to be afraid of anymore.  It was at that low point in her life that she decided to lobby for herself to co-host the fourth hour of the Today Show.  As we know, she got the job and she and Kathie Lee have been a spectacular team ever since.  They're a national treasure and they've been parodied on SNL many times - a true testament to their omnipresence in pop culture.

I got to interact with her very briefly while she was signing my book.  I'm very shy around celebrities but I was able to muster out a, "I love your positive energy."  Her smile is infectious and she radiates sunshine.  I was thrilled when she said I was "adorable".

Where We Belong is not specifically about Hoda but it's a collection of inspirational stories. I look forward to reading through it and I hope you will too!  

     

Sunday, December 13, 2015

2015 in Review/2016 Goals

It's been another bad year for reading but not for lack of trying.

In the past several months I've started and stopped at least three books.  The books I couldn't get through were a murder mystery my grandmother sent to me, a non-fiction about the birth of forensic science, and a fluff fiction about snooty rich Asians.  I got a decent way into the latter two books but finally quit because I couldn't stretch out my interest any longer. I tried as long as I did because I paid for both.  Oh well.  

I just started A Brief History of Seven Killings and so far, it's promising.  It doesn't hurt that a) I saw the author present the book almost a year ago and b) he just won the Man Booker Prize for fiction.  It's a long read so I doubt I'll finish it before the year is out.  I have the hard copy but boy do I wish I had the ebook because it's heavy to lift over my head while I'm lying down in bed.  I've almost dropped the book on myself a few times.  Ha.  

I guess my goal for 2016 is to read more books than I did this year but it really depends on what strikes my fancy and holds my interest.  I definitely feel like I need more reading in my life.  The Internet and TV have been too dominant as my main sources of entertainment. Reading is good for the mind and soul.  I don't know if the Internet and TV help as much as they hurt the mind and soul.  (I feel like I've said this before...)

I'd say my favorite reads of the year were The Girl on the Train and Big Little Lies.  They both grabbed and held my interest and I was able to plough through them quickly.  While the characters were flawed and unlikable in The Girl on the Train, I found the narrative to be really compelling.  Big Little Lies had its serious moments but I also really enjoyed its lighter side and there were likable/relatable characters.

ETA: I quit.  I'm not going to finish A Brief History of Seven Killings.  Slogging through the patois requires too much effort.  I might go back to it one day (???) but I'm not betting on it.

Also, I did actually achieve my goal for this year.  I think I set out to read five books and I accomplished that plus some.  This year instead of putting the pressure of a number out there I'm going to set a goal to TRY to read these specific titles that have been on my list for a while:

Roots
War and Peace
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Handmaid's Tale
A Room with a View
Little Women
No Name
Kolyma Tales

We shall see how I do! 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Road to Character - Review



I read this fantastic article a couple of months ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/david-brooks-the-moral-bucket-list.html?_r=0 . Almost simultaneously, my parents discovered that the author, David Brooks, wrote a full-length version in the form of a book called The Road to Character.  Knowing it would be something I'd be interested in (without knowing I'd read the article), my parents got me a copy of the book.

It pains me to say this but I really preferred the condensed version.  After getting stuck two-thirds through the book I finally skimmed the last chapter last night.  The book started out promising enough but it became monotonous and repetitive.  It was also very dry at certain points.

I appreciated the individual stories of people who followed a higher calling despite obstacles but at some point it stopped being interesting.  There was also a particular passage in the book where the author revealed some serious bias.  It was the chapter about George C. Marshall (of the Marshall Plan).  Brooks was saying something about Marshall having made good and bad decisions and then used Marshall's lack of support in creating the state of Israel as a bad decision.  The author, by the way, is Jewish and his son serves in the Israeli army.

I did dog-ear a few passages that I found helpful and I'll share them here:

Take a bucket, fill it with water,
Put your hand in - clear up to the wrist.
Now pull it out; the hole that remains
Is a measure of how much you'll be missed....

The moral of this quaint example:
To do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself, but remember,
There is no Indispensible Man!  

And

The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself.

The good news is that the book reinforced what I've been thinking for a long time - that our society is way too ME ME ME.  The society of yesteryear was more focused on things outside the self.  There's a balance and I hope we get there one of these days.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister - Review



Vanessa and Her Sister is an historical fiction that my grandmother recommended and subsequently mailed to me to read.  It's about the Bloomsbury Group - a collection of artists, writers, and socialites who gathered in the early 1900s to exchange philosophies, theories, artistic methods, and bodily fluids at times (haha).  More specifically, it focuses on the relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolfe.

I had never heard of Vanessa Bell prior to this book.  I've never read any of Virginia Woolfe's novels but I've heard of her.  I suppose that's one purpose of this book - to shed light on the forgotten or ignored older sister, Vanessa.  Perhaps I'm wrong to refer to her that way. Maybe she was famous in her time (?) but it seems to me that Virginia Woolfe is more prevalent in today's popular culture.

The book is written from Vanessa's perspective through her diary with bits of correspondence thrown in from the other relevant characters.  I enjoyed the novel to a point but I grew very impatient with Vanessa and her handling of personal affairs.  When the novel starts, she's the eldest and most responsible of her sibling set.  It's obvious that she takes on the burden of managing everyone's affairs and more specifically, Virginia's fragile mental condition.  I looked it up and experts suspect she had bipolar disorder.

What I found frustrating is that her commitment to her family often times resulted in a lack of care for herself.  Virginia, separate from her condition, was selfish and possessive.  Instead of pushing back, it seems like Vanessa did her best to placate and work around Virginia's unreasonable whims.  Why?  It got to the point where Virginia wedged herself between Vanessa and her husband, Clive, solely because she was incapable of sharing her sister. Since she couldn't claim her sister as hers anymore, she had to claim her sister's husband. And Vanessa let it happen without a fight.

I guess none of it really mattered since everyone in the Bloomsbury Group seemed to have an open marriage but it was uncomfortable to read about.  Vanessa eventually accepts the status of her "modern" marriage but long after she's been made heartbroken.  She should never allowed herself to be put in that position.  Period.

It was a pleasant enough read but as I mentioned above, I found it difficult to wade through the sisters' relationship without feeling frustrated.  Vanessa was a pushover and Virginia was a brat.