Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

5 Stars

 

I was mesmerized by this book.

In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman suffering from severe abdominal pain and bleeding, entered Baltimore’s John Hopkins Hospital, where the wards were still segregated, and the care of Black patients was rumored to be inferior to that accorded Whites. Baltimore’s Black community even claimed that Hopkins kidnapped people in the dead of night, right off the city’s streets, to serve as unwilling subjects of gruesome research projects. Unsurprisingly, Black patients like Henrietta went to Hopkins only when they were critically ill or dying.

Henrietta was quickly diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During her radium treatments, cells from Henrietta’s cervix were harvested and given—without her true understanding, her family would later maintain—to Dr. George Gey, a Hopkins researcher who was trying to create the world’s first line of immortal cells, or cells that could regenerate themselves indefinitely.

Dr. Gey was successful and the HeLa cells were born. The immortal HeLa cells became a medical miracle that would give rise to life-saving drugs like the polio vaccine and various cancer therapies.

Within weeks of her entering Hopkins, Henrietta died, and her name was quickly lost to history. Some later articles said her real name was Helen Lane, but there was little immediate interest in discovering the true identify or life story of the woman behind the HeLa cells. Her husband and children were left uninformed even as to her diagnosis and had no idea what happened to her during the autopsy that Dr. Gey performed.

At the heart of Rebecca Skloot’s story is the desperate longing of Henrietta’s children to know who their mother really was. Skloot focuses on daughter Deborah, who has only a lock of her mother’s hair, a treasured possession that she keeps in the family Bible. Deborah pursues obtaining official recognition of her mother’s contribution to science and worries that her mother’s cells experience pain in the research she imagines as inflicted upon them.

Henrietta had been born in Clover, VA, in the home-house that had served as her ancestors’ slave cabin. She was a wife, a loving mother to four children, a woman who adored dancing, and a caretaker in both her family and her community. In her life, her greatest journey was from Clover to Baltimore’s Turner Station neighborhood, but her cells would travel to outer space on rockets, studying the impact of space travel on human beings.

The HeLA cells were harvested and grown just before the birth of the Civil Rights movement, and at the confluence of so many issues: healthcare parity for impoverished, minority, and disadvantaged patients; medical privacy; and especially, informed consent. Her husband and children have long maintained that Henrietta never donated her cells. They wonder why her cells could jump start a multi-billion-dollar industry, while they themselves could never even obtain health insurance. Most poignantly, they struggle even to pay for the hearing aids they need to treat their congenital deafness.

Fans of nonfiction and medical science histories will love this book. I certainly did.

Book Review: A Double Life, by Flynn Berry

5 Stars

 

I loved this book. Flynn Berry creates an indomitable character in Claire, a British General Practitioner who displays great courage and resourcefulness in investigating, as an adult, a vicious murder that she witnessed when she was only 8 years old.

A Double Life is a psychological suspense thriller set in present-day London and Scotland. It is loosely based on the story of Lord Lucan, a Member of Parliament who disappeared in 1979 after being accused of murder. The real Lord Lucan had several children; Berry imagines how such a man’s daughter and son would have coped with the fallout from the murder and their subsequent life in Witness Protection, where their greatest fear was that their father might one day return.

A Double Life reveals the depravity of the scions of the Upper Class—those Oxford men who speak with cut-glass accents and throw their privilege around like a medieval torture device against those less endowed with cash, connections, and real estate. It shows how the crimes they committed as students—for the sheer arrogance of proving they could escape punishment—led to repercussions that haunted their children for decades afterwards.

My one quibble is with the editing:  the book contains many independent clauses or sentences that should have been separated by a period or semicolon. I read—and loved—Berry’s previous book, Under the Harrow, and noticed this error in that book also. This seems to be one of the few weaknesses in her writing style, one a good editor should correct.

Fans of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver will not be able to put this book down.

Book Review: Harvest, by Jim Crace

 

5 Stars

Harvest is an exquisitely-written tale of the dispossessed: impoverished indentured farmers are flung off ancestral lands as a wealthy landlord transforms his feudal holdings into more profitable grazing land for sheep. The story is set in a medieval time that is never specified, and in a village too small to possess a name, a church, or even an awareness of life in the next parish; the village’s boundaries are delineated by stones against which parents symbolically butt their children’s heads, a warning to the next generation of the limits of both geography and role that they must never traverse.

Walther Thirsk arrived in the village 12 years earlier as the servant of Master Kent, a kindly and generous lord. He fell in love with Cecily, a local girl, but even his marriage and subsequent widowing did not earn him the status of a trusted insider. His separateness is emphasized by the contrast between his dark hair and the blond hair of his intermarried neighbors. Subsequent events only serve to sharpen that divide.

Long-standing traditions are upended by two events that occur as Walter and his neighbors harvest what turns out to be their last crop of barley: the arrival of a family of squatters— themselves thrown off land that is being turned into pastureland for sheep, who are quickly blamed for a fire in the stable; and the childless Master Kent’s disinheritance of the village and manor house to his late wife’s cousin, the cruel and rapacious Master Jordan. Master Jordan has already hired the enigmatic Mr. Quill to survey his new lands, the maps providing Walter with a bird’s-eye view of the village and its tininess in comparison to the wider world into which he must soon venture.

My only quibble is that the ending was too drawn out. The last twenty percent of the book comprises more of a mental journey than a physical one, although that journey is rendered in language so evocative one feels the profound upheaval the villagers—and Walter—suffer.

Fans of Andrew Michael Hurley will love this book.

The Greenest Branch, by P.K. Adams

5 Stars

The Greenest Branch is an engrossing historical novel set in the 1100’s about the early life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician.

At the age of 10, Hildegard enters the cloister of the Abbey of St. Disibod, following an ancient custom of families’ tithing their tenth child to the church. Enclosure within the cloister means that Hildegard will never see her family again, but she possesses a deep faith and a strong intellect and is thrilled that, unlike other girls of marriageable age, she will be able to continue her education. She has already displayed a talent for the medicinal arts, taught to her by the family nurse, and she longs to become a physician.

Soon she is permitted to train in the abbey’s infirmary, where she develops her knowledge of the curing powers of herbs. As she grows older and more skilled, her ambition flies against the powers of the Church, which regards women who heal as practicing witchcraft. She encounters a powerful nemesis in Prior Helenger, who is determined to thwart her, despite St. Disibod’s growing wealthy from her skills at treating the infirm. The danger to Hildegard increases when she starts to write about theology, which the Church expressly forbids women from doing. Her writings attract the attention of Papal authorities, involving her in the conflicts between the Papacy and the Rhineland’s political leaders.

I highly recommend The Greenest Branch to readers of historical fiction, particularly those who enjoy reading about the medieval period. Fans of Elizabeth Chadwick, Ken Follett, Bernard Cornwell, Tony Riches, and Hilary Mantel will love this book.

Chronicle in Stone, by Ismail Kadare

5 Stars

 

Chronicle in Stone is a searing coming-of-age novel, set during World War II in an Albanian hill town that has the misfortune of lying between Italy and Greece. Gjirokaster, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, is built of stone from the Southern Balkans and counts amongst its citizens Muslims, Christians, Gypsies, nuns, and prostitutes. Its highest peak is capped by a formidable fortress that has repelled invaders as far back as The Crusades; it is here that every segment of Gjirokaster society seeks refuge during the worst of the Allied bombings, peasants mingling with nose-holding aristocrats.

The protagonist, a young Muslim boy who reads Macbeth and loves words, imagines the picturesque homes of Gjirokaster to be living creatures, each with its own story. Even the cistern in his home’s basement speaks to him, and the planes from a nearby airfield become big-bellied friends that he imagines couldn’t possibly hurt him.

The boy at first casts an amused eye on the town’s traditions, such as its fear of witchcraft and the ancient women who haven’t ventured outside in decades. He grows more observant as he notes the violence inflicted on those who flaunt its sexual mores. One man, likely a hermaphrodite, is killed the morning after his wedding for the audacity of falling in love. During a bombing, a young girl kisses her secret boyfriend and is hauled home by her hair, where she disappears in what her ever-searching boyfriend fears is an honor killing. A woman, who reveals herself as a lesbian, is dismissed with the euphemism of “having grown a beard” and banned by her own father from the safety of air raid shelters.

Chronicle in Stone proves the cruelty not only of wartime, but of unexamined traditions and of a culture that attacks its own iconoclasts. The boy’s great wisdom lies in the growing realization that not all the traumas of wartime are inflicted by invading armies.

Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent

5 Stars

 

Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent, is a deeply engrossing psychological tale of deceit set in Ireland and France.

Oliver Ryan is endowed with dark good looks, but he has suffered a harrowing childhood. He was born out of wedlock to a father who works for the Church and regards himself as an icon of moral purity, his only slip-up a seduction by a woman whom he dismisses as “a whore.”

His mother abandons the newborn, leaving him on his father’s doorstep, who acts as if he would rather the child died than raise him. When his father marries, Oliver is sent to a nearby boarding school, where he spends years spying on his old family home from an upper window. Through his binoculars, he discovers that his father has begat another son, a blond-haired golden child who is showered with paternal affection. The boy even attends the same school as Oliver, who is never allowed to reveal their shared parentage.

Oliver constructs a careful façade to hide the damage his childhood has wrought, becoming a best-selling author of children’s books. After a tragic, failed romance, he rebounds by eloping with his illustrator, a woman described by his primary mistress as “way beneath him.” For a boy who grew up wearing tattered clothing and lacking spending money, he now enjoys literary acclaim, fawning acolytes, and a home in which he can hide his secrets.

Years later, suffering from writer’s block, he punches his wife into a coma.

Told from the perspectives of those whom he has hurt, the book attempts to decode Oliver and explain his violence. This book ultimately asks—and answers—the question, “How well can one really know a person?” In the case of Oliver Ryan, it appears one can only know a sliver of the fractured, shattered man.

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

5 Stars

 

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, set in a Cambridge-like city in the martial state of Gilead. The book is a stunning achievement, a prescient tale written in 1985 about the subjugation of both women and opposition forces in a future, totalitarian America.  In Gilead, women are treated as nothing more than wombs for the procreative benefit of the ruling class, while opposition forces are hung up on a citadel wall and left to rot until the next batch of executions.

After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, you will be terrified of women who can smile and cry at the same time and long for bad-ass friends like Moira. Most of all, you will listen, with growing desperation, for the word “Mayday.”

 

 

 

Faithful Place, by Tana French

 

3 Stars

 

Faithful Place is a police procedural set in Dublin, Ireland, about Frank Mackey, a divorced undercover cop determined to shield his 9-year-old daughter, Holly, from his crazy family, especially his violent, alcoholic father and his battered mother, who could teach master classes on inducing guilt in children.

Frank Mackey has been estranged from his parents and three of his four siblings for twenty-two years, ever since the night his teenage love, Rose Daly, disappeared from Faithful Place in Dublin’s Liberties section. He and Rose had plotted to escape the Liberties’ brawling jealousies and working class pecking order, intending to start new lives in London. Only Rose never showed up, creating a scar in Frank’s heart that ultimately would lead to the demise of his marriage to Holly’s mother. What living woman could compete with a ghost, one who forever retains the perfection of youth?

As the third book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, the book wields less of the staccato writing that is Tana French’s trademark style, although the dialogue is often cutting and insightful (one scatological comment about ZZ Top was jaw-droppingly funny).

To my disappointment, I indentified the murderer about halfway through the book. The perpetrator seemed so obvious that I kept hoping to be proven wrong, but the ending contained few surprises.

Faithful Place will appeal to Tana French’s fans–and I am one, but I would argue that In the Woods and The Likeness are more suspenseful.

 

#amreading #fiction #books #TanaFrench

 

 

Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

5 Stars

 

Elmet is a literary suspense novel set in Yorkshire, England, about John, a fighter for pay and former enforcer of rents, struggling to protect his two children and to save their home, which he built himself on land owned by Mr. Price, his violent and rapacious old boss.

Invoking an ancient Celtic Kingdom that once existed in Yorkshire, Elmet is a story that could take place across the centuries. 15-year-old Cathy and 13-year-old Daniel come of age in the woods, each whittling their own bow and arrow from ash trees, hanging homemade Christmas lights from pine trees, and hunting for deer for their dinner in the copse behind their house. What little formal education they receive is provided by a school where their poverty makes them targets and, later, by Vivienne, a next-door neighbor who teaches Daniel—while Cathy runs free in the woods—the beauty of old sagas and imparts rudimentary technology skills using household appliance blueprints.

Cathy is a wild child at heart, unsuited to society’s norms and consumed with anger at the dangers women and girls face, whether from strangers, from the sons of Mr. Price, or from the ginger-haired travelers with whom they sometimes interact. Like her father, she is a formidable opponent and drives much of the story’s disturbing ending, when the conflict with Mr. Price and his cartel of fellow landowners reaches a horrifying crisis.

Elmet is a grim story, but its gorgeous prose and sharp delineation of character speak deeply to the love of a son for his Daddy and the bond that exists between siblings—and how hard one will search for the prodigal family member who has not yet found her way home. Elmet was a finalist for the Man Booker prize in 2017, an honor that it richly deserves.

The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

5 Stars

 

The Elementals is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic fiction. It upends the notion that scary things only happen at night and turns the hot Alabama sun into a terrifying and enervating character of its own. By the time the reader finishes The Elementals, he or she will fear a sun that blazes too strongly, sugar that tastes like sand, and dunes that swallow both houses and people.

The book opens in Mobile, where Marian, the matriarch of the Savage family, is being buried in a gruesome funeral ritual that dates back hundreds of years. The grieving Savage and McCray families then retreat to an isolated spit of land called Beldame on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where they have been vacationing—and dying—for decades.

Three houses sit on the shore at Beldame, but the third is falling apart, as it is slowly being consumed by a sand dune. No ghosts appear in the book, only mysterious, violent creatures who inhabit the third house, where their movements are visible as shadows flitting past the windows during the hottest hours of the day. Their presence can be heard in a bedroom door slamming shut of its own accord and in the sound of sand sifting through a broken window.

Each of the characters has his or her own reasons for fearing the third house, but it is India McCray, the granddaughter from New York, who brings about the final resolution. That resolution is equal to the finest in horror fiction, even as it leaves the reader wondering just who or what the creatures in the third house really are.

 

#books #amreading