Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Published as her first novel in 1994 when the author was 25 years old, this book received immensely favorable reviews. Many reviewers and readers were ready to nominate Danticat as the new spokeswoman for Haitian immigrants, so many of them since the late 1950’s that they are called the Haitian Diaspora.

I picked up this book, the first I have read of Danticat’s, with the expectation that I would learn something about Haiti, and also something about the experience of being an immigrant. Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti, and her parents left her and her younger brother when she was only 4 years old to go to the United States. Her parents had expected to send for them right away, but difficulties and red tape extended the separation so that Edwidge was 12 years old when she finally joined her parents in New York City. The young girl in Breath, Eyes, Memory has a similar experience, living many years with her aunt in Haiti until her mother finally sends for her from New York.

There the similarity ends – for Sophie, the girl in the book, has a mother but no father. Her father was a thug – probably a Tonton Macoute, the rural militia group that dictator Francois Duvalier cultivated as his strong arm, who raped, robbed and brutalized citizens for their own pleasure and personal gain. This man raped her mother, Martine, pushing her down in a cane field until he had pounded out his purpose on her and in her. She could not see his face, as he wore a mask, but his likeness seems to be borne by Sophie, who doesn’t resemble her mother’s family.

Danticat wants to write about the distancing that takes place when families separate across continents, with oceans between them, and about the ways they try to gather up their strings of attachment and reconnect with each other. Martine, the mother, has never “processed” her rape and has been suicidal since that time, with ever recurrent nightmares of the event, even after twenty years. In a stance that Danticat presents as Haitian, Martine overly protects Sophie as she matures, not letting her out of the house except to go to school. You have to wonder how Sophie manages to grow up with no friends, living in a world peopled only by her mother and Marc, Martine’s Haitian-American gentleman friend, who is wealthy and helps Martine, but at a distance. Martine’s need to guard and protect her daughter paradoxically ends up in tearing them apart.

How much is this book about Haiti? Some readers have embraced Danticat’s writing as a much-needed voice for female pain and suffering, particularly the rape and humiliation present in countries undergoing post-colonial unrest and upheavals. But Danticat is also witnessing regarding cruel tradition passed on from mother to daughter, in this case mothers’ “testing” their daughters, making sure their virginity is intact. Haiti’s women are strong, but traditionally the culture is one where men are valued over women, and the woman’s offering of herself – her body – is her principal worth. Immigration has given Martine, and, by extension, Sophie a new life, but as Danticat writes: “There is always a place where nightmares are passed on through generations like heirlooms.” In this first novel, Danticat evokes such nightmares effectively, but her characters are not strong enough to dispel them. Sophie’s catharsis regarding her mother’s pain is willed by Danticat, but that kind of liberation is not picked up so easily – not by phrase and not by ritual acts, such as Sophie pounding the stalks of cane at the story's end.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Crimean War: A History / by Orlando Figes

Few modern Americans, even those historically inclined toward European history, know much about the Crimean War. A great many people, when asked, won't even be able to locate the region in question on a map (Black Sea/southern Ukraine). It was one of the few large-scale European conflicts--if not quite a global war, then at least a 'hemispheric' one--which the United States had absolutely nothing to do with outside of remote casual interest. So it is indeed a little ironic that recent trends in American foreign policy have involved many of the same issues--political partitioning in the Holy Land, conflict resolution between religious-based nationalities, middle-eastern border disputes, over-reaching dictators, etc.--which instigated the original Crimean, or 'Eastern' War over a century and a half ago. In similar fashion to the world wars that would follow a century later, war in the Crimea was a mult-tiered, multi-faceted affair. In no way was it relegated to one place, nor was it concentrated within a single rivalry. It was the first conflict to be fought on multiple continents with battles raging simultaneously in areas ranging from St. Petersburg to the Caucuses and from eastern Europe to eastern Siberia. It was also the first war to utilize the revolutionary logistical devices of the railroad and the telegraph.

Though a disastrous affair nearly on par with the first World War's futility and ineffectiveness, it wasn't a conflict entered into with haste. As with any military engagement, tensions were high long before the fighting. In prior decades, the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the restructuring of European nation states and the Treaty of Vienna (1815) had essentially established Russia as the "Policemen of Europe" in that portion of the continent, bestowing them with the authority to subdue minor uprisings throughout much of the Balkans, Turkey and Eurasia. Feared at the time of the treaty, notions later expounded upon by none other than Marx and Engels, was that Russia could not resist the urge to expand their own empire. Concern over Russia's already creeping propensity to exert undue influence over their Ottoman counterparts was self-evident. Such a condition also foresaw that the imperial powers of France and Britain, fearing their interests abroad in the same regions, would oppose Russia's ambitions to the point of war. These educated guesses were proven correct when an increasingly impatient and aggressive-minded Russian ruler, Czar Nicholas I, acted toward not only extending his country's own territory but in attempting to implement Christian Orthodox rule in the Holy Land. One thing led to another and before long forces, over 1 million men strong with the allied contingent (France-Britain-Sardinia) and nearly as much on the Russian side, were shipped by rail to the Crimea to wage battle in places such as Sevastopol, Balaklava and Tagenrog.

For a war best remembered for more than a few strategical blunders, Tennyson's tongue-in-cheek poem Charge of the Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale, this is a pretty good chronicle of the conflict, very well-researched and written by an author with an enthralling flair for military history. Birkbeck College, University of London professor and Booker Prize winner Figes does well to remind readers just how implemental of a war it was and just why it was that prior to World War I, Europeans lived very much in the shadow of the Crimean War. It was a particularly flawed and fatal engagement with over 500,000 casualties, men and civilians doomed and deposed as much by disease and sanitation deficiencies as the fighting. As well the conflict was as much a pivotal precursor to modernity as it was a forerunner to more destructive, technologically advanced warfare. Within the new world order we now inhabit, the Crimean War can be seen as a primitive encounter with the contemporary war on terror, having procured itself as the first full conflagration of the industrialized world against the Orient and a symptomatic early warning sign of the West's future relations with Islam. (947.0738 FIGES)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Portrait of a Lady / by Henry James

If ever an author marginalized his homeland in favor of other, more fashionable places, it was American Henry James (1843-1916). Any slight was largely unintended however. With regard to his lifestyle, it seems only practical that James would concentrate his literary efforts on the settings and subjects at hand. Born to a wealthy New York City family already well-regarded for their intellectual prowess--James' father Henry Sr. and his brother William were both accomplished philosophers and his sister Alice's posthumous diary would influence later feminists--James received a classical (if informal) education . For much of his early life, he lived abroad traveling extensively with private tutors through England, France, Italy and Switzerland. It was during this formative period that James garnered a great appreciation for the art and culture of some of Europe's most cosmopolitan settings. His only sustained residence in the United States came when he briefly attended Harvard Law School after which he resumed a semi-permanent home abroad in England for the remainder of his life. His novels, short stories and varied prose, much of it heralded as classic 'American' Literature, is predominately set in Britain and continental Europe where it almost exclusively depicts a society and class of people who could well-afford to devote themselves to the refinements of life. Consequently, critics of James have said his fiction is unrealistic and have derided the author as an unapologetic anglophile with eurocentric tendencies. His 1881 serialised novel The Portrait of a Lady follows a young American girl as she takes up a residence with relatives in England and subsequently grows into womanhood.

American Isabel Archer is only 19 when her father dies and her Aunt Touchett comes from England intending, upon request from Isabel's late father, to take the girl back with her to the Touchett estate of Gardencourt. It is settled that a life lived here in proximity to a more sophisticated social element can give Isabel a better chance to "blossom" into a well-refined, cultured woman. Almost instantly upon her arrival, Isabel is courted by several suitors, among them an older, well-off gentleman named Lord Warburton and a younger American man, Caspar Goodwood, whose been in love with Isabel previously and has followed her from America. Though both men are of able means and come well-recommended, neither can win Isabel's hand in marriage and each graciously depart from her company. It is also during this time that Isabel forms a close attachment with the Touchett's son, Ralph, whose terminal illness both prevents and dissuades him from pursuing Isabel romantically. But Ralph is a kindhearted, affectionate man and while it's never explicitly stated, it is he who perhaps loves Isabel in the purest, most unselfish way. As the elder Mr. Touchett, stricken with a similar illness, lies dying it is Ralph who persuades him (anonymously) to bequeath a legacy to Isabel, an inheritance large enough so that the girl may have the means to cultivate her higher faculties through travel and association with European society's more sophisticated set.

Though surprised at her good fortune, Isabel suspects that Ralph may have had a hand in it. And as anticipated, the young woman does indeed flourish with aid from her newfound wealth, first in the salons of Paris then the courts of Italy where along the way she procures the friendship of one Madame Merle, a thoroughly "complete" woman polished in every sort of way and a person Isabel hopes to emulate. Consequently, it is Madame Merle who introduces Isabel to her "friend" Gilbert Osmond, a man as impressed with Isabel as she is with him. Before long the two are in love and, despite the warnings of others that Gilbert is a fortune hunter, Isabel agrees to marry him. But what she doesn't know, what she doesn't even fear as she succombs to the affable and gallant wiles of Mr. Osmond is that dangerous secrets have been witheld from her concerning Gilbert and his charming daughter Pansy, a girl much in the same strangely limited situation as Isabel formerly had been.

The Portrait of a Lady is popularly considered to James best novel. It could also be said that it is his most 'Jamesian' novel, the author portraying a world, his own little microcosm of parlors, drawing rooms and galleries, where his brand of literary realism is given room to thrive. Of course no one who regards this James novel (and many of his others) would say that his mode of portrayal, a realm absent of anything but the wealthy elite stiffly going about their lives, is in any way realistic. And it's not, at least in the sense that the 'real world' and the cross-section of society contained within it are not only disregarded, but that any activity relegated to the mundane aspects of life are ever within the scope of the story. Much of it does seem like pomp and circumstance. But that's just it. James' "realism" is never intended to encompass such aspects which he feels, perhaps justifiably, aren't necessary to elucidate the ideas, themes and 'realities' he aims to render. For his is the kind of style, very acutely rendered within context, which strives to engage the most intimately authentic portions of human life, the conditions, choices and consequences enmeshed therein. An understanding of this concept isn't without contradictions. It is perhaps a bit hard to accept Jame's realism--a motif in which he firmly insisted was intended to oppose romanticist elements in fiction--when such a flourishing type of life as Isabel aspires to carries such exclusive, largely unobtainable means. (FIC JAMES)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim: A Novel / by Jonathan Coe

English satiric novelist Jonathan Coe has said that he writes as a way to connect with people. A self-acknowledged introvert whose own neighbors rarely see him, he sees no other reason why one would turn to writing in the first place and seems rather awed by writers who are extroverts. "Why choose this mode of expression unless more direct modes of expression are unavailable to you for one reason or another? It's an introvert's form, as far as I'm concerned, though maybe that's a rather narrow view." (Laity, Guardian, 2010). Several of his early novels such as The Rotter's Club, loosely based on his boyhood in the seventies, have been adapted to the small screen as TV series. His latest, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sam, follows a lonely middle aged man as he drives a car full of toothbrushes from South London to the Shetland Islands.

Some would say Maxwell Sim is having a bit of a midlife crisis; others might acknowledge that he hasn't enough of a life to warrant one. Forty-one, separated from his wife and stuck in a hapless job as a customer service rep for a department store, Max can't seem to find any meaning, purpose or direction in his life. He's lonely too. Visiting his distant, preoccupited father has been a bit of a downer, his Blackberry-addict daughter ignores him, his best friend no longer returns his calls and the only way he can communicate with his estranged wife is through clandestine e-mails. Of the seventy "friends" on his newly opened Facebook account, none seem like people he'd even want to know. In a drastic attempt to turn things around, Max abruptly quits his job for a new gig where, as part of a gimmicky ad campaign for an oral hygiene company, he must drive a brand-coated Toyota Prius filled with toothbrushes from London to the remote Shetland Islands in north Scotland. Thinking that a change of scenery and an opportunity to travel can recharge his life, he sets off on his little adventure only to encounter more than a few misbegotten individuals and some awkward, disturbing elements from his past. He also seems to be developing an unhealthy fixation with the sultry-sounding voice on his satellite navigation system.

Disconnection and alienation. It's been said more than a few times that these are the bastard children of the digital age where technology has essentially erased the need for physical interaction as part of interpersonal communication. True connection is always elusive in a world where online identities now outpace actual individuals and relationships turnabout in swift fashion--truths no one is more familiar with than Max Sim. Expectedly, nothing very exciting or reinvigorating happens as he directs his little vehicle through the country completely ignoring the designated route he was to have taken. Ironically, the only cherished connection he establishes is with the voice ("Emma") on his satnav. And while he does gain some insight into the nature of his current unhappiness, Max finds little to comfort him and more than a few things (repressed memories, empty lives, angry relatives, etc.) which downright haunt him as he goes on his way. A thoughtful novel, one as introspective as it is darkly comic, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a book which tells a familiar story but engages the reader with fascinating distinction and nuance, ultimately arriving at a subtle realization about humanity and the need for connection which goes far above and beyond the normal mediums. (FIC COE)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Blacklands: A Novel / by Belinda Bauer

It's been eighteen years since 11-year-old Billy Peters disappeared from the small town of Shipcolt in Somerset (UK). Everyone believes Billy was murdered--after all, pedophile/serial killer Arnold Avery confessed to the crime along with murder of six other children, all of whom he disposed of in the desolate moor surrounding the village. It's just that the remains of the other six were found and the mystery of where Billy's corpse might be has always been a bit of a loose end, one that's had Billy's mother convinced he's still alive. Ever vigilant, she ("Poor Old Mrs. Peters") still stands guard at the same front window from which she last saw him, letting the world and time pass her by as whe waits for her son. Her remaining family, a son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons, quietly forebear with their Nan's issues even as their own lives suffer and break apart.

Twelve-year-old grandson Steven has seen the damage Billy's disappearance has done to his family and is determined to find some closure even if it means digging holes at random in the moor hoping to find something, anything, to bring about a resolution. He so desperately wants peace for his Nan that he secretly begins writing anonymous letters to Avery Arnold, currently doing life in prison, asking for help in finding the body. But little does Steven know how dangerous his little ploy is. As the correspondence between Steven and Avery becomes more familiar, Avery devises his own scheme, toying with his mysterious letter writer through misdirected hints and manipulative responses. When he finally realizes the identity of his little pen pal, Avery's own life suddenly gains and entirely new purpose, one far more dangerous and demented than anything Steven could have imagined.

Whoa. This is a really good debut novel, right up there with the best of them as psychological suspense goes. Like a master painter who skillfully employs every inch of canvas, Bauer writes with absolutely no 'wasted' words, sentences or paragraphs. Every description, each subtle bit of backstory and all of the characters are brilliantly and concisely elucidated, the author perpetually aware of the implications at each turn in the story. And while her superior economy of words will impress not a few seasoned mystery readers, it's her talent at storytelling, of illuminating the minds of the characters and molding the bits and pieces into a particularly alluring psychological game of cat-and-mouse which most bears witness her skill. Don't miss out on this book or this author. Her latest, Darkside, is also currently available for checkout. (MYS BAUER)

Shelf Awareness for Consumers

Shelf Awareness has recently started publishing a free, semi-weekly e-newsletter for you Readers out there (they also have a trade version for folks in the book industry). It has high quality reviews of new books, news about authors and books and interesting tidbits that the authors have gleaned from the web on the reading life. I really like it. Check it out at: Shelf Awareness for Consumers

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Yes, again -- more authors behaving badly

I don't know why I can't get enough of these kinds of articles. I get such a kick out of them. Flavorwire just posted an article listing the 30 harshest author-on-author insults. Ha! Click here to check them out.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think? The Net's Impact on Our Minds and Future / edited by John Brockman; w/ Introduction by W. Daniel Hillis is an online community and independently organized think tank which keeps tabs on some of the more important intellectual issues of the day. Every year the organization poses a question to a some of the world's smartest individuals and publishes the responses. Since 2005, each question and answer series has led to a book. In 2010 it was  "Is the Internet changing the way you think?" and, as expected, the results from the over 150 respondents, all of them qualified intellectuals mostly in the math and science fields, provided a sizable amount of philosophical and cognitively astute analysis.

Though each segment is obviously backed up by solidly well-concieved ideas, the contributions become redundant after the first few responses. The thinkers get kind of dense as they plow through lots of socratically-tinged postulations, going into elaborative explanations which neither give a direct answer or offer a concise analysis. In more than a few cases, they actually ask a new question ("the question we should be asking is . . .") and proceed to answer it in equally dense, rambling fashion. It's a book which is more amusing (at least at first) than informative though it will inevitably attract readers of a more philosophical bend to scrutinize some of the content. The most interesting response? Maybe the poetically inclined statement of Italian architect Stefano Boeri who begins with the words, "internet is wind", and rallies his abstract assessment in equally metaphorical fashion by stating that "this wind becomes precious occasions to understand what we cannot say, what we are not willing to deposit in the forum of planetary simultaneity." Uh huh? (004.678 IS)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Raising: A Novel / by Laura Kasischke

It's been over a year since a tragic car crash took the life of Nicole Werner, a beautiful, blond straight-A college student. Though herself a fatal casualty, her boyfriend Craig, the driver at the time, survived the accident with only a slight concussion. Now Craig, still devastated and even a bit hazy about the night in question, must endure Nicole's up-in-arms sorority sisters who lay the blame squarely on his shoulders. They're suspicious of Craig and his "miraculous" survival, but also for his unlikely position inside the university's selective Honors College, a prestigious program they believe Craig gained entry into because his wealthy, well-connected father. That Craig has attained the reputation of a spoiled rich kid hasn't helped his cause. If Craig's dad has such pull with regards to his son's academic placement, why couldn't he also have arranged it so that his son could be excused of any wrongful doings in regards to Nicole's death.

The sorority girls, spearheaded by Nicole's near-malevolent former roommate, are right about one thing: Craig's dad did get him into Honors College. But while there's certainly some mystery surrounding the accident, it's nothing to do with Craig so much as it is the totally inaccurate news articles chronicling the incident. For one thing, it mentions there were no eyewitnesses, an incredibly falsefied statement as there was an eyewitness, Shelly Lockes, whose story was told to the authorities in detail and has exactly nothing in common with how the accident was publically portrayed. Meanwhile Perry, a roommate of Craig and childhood friend of Nicole, has grown extremely suspicious of all that happened and has even begun to think that Nicole may not be dead. With the aid of a few friends, Shelly included, Perry begins to dig through the mystery, ultimately dumbfounded by what he finds.

This recent 'campus novel' by University of Michigan professor and midwest native is a Hollywood screenplay waiting to happen, though you can probably foresee which parts would have to be omitted for time. Suspicious deaths, dorm room drama, urban legends, incredible conspiracies and young love all seem like the perfect ingredients for yet another movie exclusively marketed to 18-25-ers. And while not the most taut pyschological thrillers--jamming in some seriously dubious (and possibly over-the-top) scenarios into one novel--the book delivers on intrigue, character development and mysterious undercurrents. There are indeed a lot of hypothetical what ifs and questionable connections in The Raising, but Kasischke writes accessible prose and is familiar with her environment so that even the most out-there bits are never too, too far from the main story. And it may surprise the reader that for such a lengthy novel (nearly 500 pages), the plot moves fairly swiftly with plenty of suspense and anticipation within each character's little story. For readers, both young and old, just wanting a good time won't want to miss out. (FIC KASISCHK) 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Steampunk fiction at MMPL

Over the course of constructing a display on steampunk fiction (currently on the tables nearest the nonfiction section), I did a bit of research on the history and exact definition of "steampunk fiction." It turns out that there isn't an exact definition the term, but it is generally defined as speculative fiction with an element of invented technology that eschews electricity (machines powered by steam, clockwork or springs), frequently a Victorian-age setting (though it can also be Edwardian, or during the 1940's, an alternative present or, occasionally, even the future), with a tone that isn't as dystopian as cyberpunk. Frequently there are elements of the supernatural (vampires, werewolves), sometimes there is crime fighting, and Queen Victoria occasionally makes cameo appearances.

I ran across this article from from last year that I thought was nice: The remarkable resilience of steampunk. It reviews a few steampunk novels and discusses the subgenre a bit. If you're looking for somewhere to start reading, William Gibson's The difference engine is frequently mentioned as pretty influential in the subgenre. There are several established SF authors who occasionally dip into a steampunk universe from time to time: Neal Stephenson in The diamond age, Michael Moorcock in The metatemporal detective, S.M. Stirling with The Peshawar Lancers. We also have several anthologies of steampunk short stories, which are great for readers who want a taste of many different authors who write in the genre. Cherie Priest's Boneshaker and its sequel, Dreadnought, are frequently listed on steampunk reading lists, and I have to include Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series just because it is a personal favorite. If you're interested in other steampunk novels, stop by the new display or the Reference Desk for more ideas. Happy reading!

All The Right Moves (DVD) 1983 / a film by Michael Chapman; starring Tom Cruise, Craig T. Nelson and Lea Thompson

For 18-year-old Stefan "Stef" Djordjevick, the only way to escape his bleak Pennsylvania steel town is with a football scholarship. A star defensive back on his high school team, he knows that each game, each performance is critical to the rest of his life. Stef's not the only one who wants out. Everyone including his girlfriend wants to escape their grim surroundings and the inevitably dismal future which comes with it. Even Stef's head coach, the gutsy but verbally abusive Coach Nickerson dreams of riding his winning team to a championship and hopefully a much better position ("somewhere far away") as an assistant in college. The night of the defining game holds high stakes, higher still when things don't go right and the tension between Stef and Coach Nickerson becomes hostile to a point where both their plans and dreams come crashing to a hault.

Right from the start, this movie makes one thing unavoidably clear: there's a mill, and it's not an all that happy-fun place to work. Like the wide-screen close-up of a frozen Jack Nicholson revealed in Kubrick's The Shining, the steel mill is brought abruptly to viewer attention in the film's opening shot. There is nothing even remotely good about the mill. Absolutely everything, every devastatingly sad element of the town from its name, Ampipe, dubbed after the "American Steel & Pipe" company, right down to the drab homes of the workers emanates from the tomb-like structure atop the hill.  No one is left unscarred by its grim (and grimey) presence, from the miserable workers who trudge up the hill every morning to the even more miserable workers who are laid off daily and the multitudes of dependents and non-workers who, like Stef, plod through lives of quiet desperation. Consequently there are no smiling faces in Ampipe, only the leering, hungover scowls of men and the vacant stares of defeated women. The one outlet (other than alcohol) available to the people of Ampipe is also something toxic, as corrupting and pestilential within itself as the pollution spewing from the smoke stacks. Given to living vicariously through the lives of 17 and 18-year-olds, the entire town exists in a sort of emotional vacuum where a stumble here or a miscall there defines far more than collective misfortune. It proliferates a system which necessitates bitter personal conflicts, distorts the truth, neglects higher priorities and fosters evil intentions. The individual opportunities created stand as the lone redeeming element. That the theme of dead-end industrial commerce within a small, rural community is relentlessy driven home for viewer enlightenment is probably a good thing because nothing else in the movie is very significant. As a film All The Right Moves is, well, kind of dumb. Cliche, cliche, cliche--it goes without saying. It's a little embarassing watching Tom Cruise, who looks so ridiculously out-of-place that comparisons to Rudy will inevitably get thrown around by viewers who've only seen the latter, and even the always effervescent Lea Thompson seems badly miscast as the dowdy, enabling girlfriend whose own passions for music are cruelly overlooked. But the movie's so dated it entertains with its camp value, maintaining a kitsch effect popular with 80's movies these days, much of it do to the lamentably tacky (funny in an ironic way) teen aphorisms and awkward slang strewn throughout the dialogue. Plus, like so many bad books and movies, the cover art is noticeably good. (DVD ALL) 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Published in 2009, this book centers on an issue raised by the development of medical science and the progress of medical research. Researchers tried for a long time to find cells that would never stop growing, cells that would not die. A 31 year old African-American woman contracted cervical cancer which was diagnosed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, in February of 1951. She was treated with radium, the latest development in cancer treatment, which seemed to get rid of her tumor. However, she had pains again by June. At first the doctors found nothing, but after some weeks had passed, they discovered more tumors. She was given radiation to no avail and died in October, 1951. Her name was Henrietta Lacks. A researcher at the hospital was given some of her cells from the original tumor. Her doctor did not need permission to do this, and even today consent would not be required by law. All blood and other tissue material taken for diagnostic purposes by the medical profession are not considered the property of the patient that undergoes the tests or procedures or operations.

Although Henrietta died, her cancer cells did not. As the author of the book explains to us, although the cells taken were cancerous, they still behaved like cells in many ways and could be used in research. They were the first cells to regenerate infinitely. Eventually HeLa cells, as they were called, were used to find a vaccine for polio, and have been used all over the world to help treat leukemia, influenza, herpes, Parkinson’s disease and to work on cures for cancer and many other illnesses.

Since Henrietta’s cancer cells have been used so extensively, their existence represents millions of dollars paid for their use in research, as well as the profits reaped from the drugs that they helped to make. Rebecca Skloot’s book presents in detail not only the development of the HeLa cells, but how Henrietta’s surviving family was impacted: first by her death, and then by their slow realization of how powerful this legacy was that she inadvertently left to the world.

The author, Ms. Skloot, is a key player in that realization process, describing how over a 10-year span she slowly got to know Henrietta’s family, trying to convince them that she wanted to tell the world about Henrietta, not just her cells. They are a family in tough circumstances, struggling to get by, not being able to afford any health insurance – an ironic note, considering what their mother’s cells have done for modern medicine.

In the end, this is a book to read for the story of the family, and how for all our advances, so many people live lives untouched by the benefits of those advances. The issue of proprietary rights regarding our bodies is addressed in the book, but to no real conclusion. Science and pharmacology wants a free hand in using these parts of us, and the Lacks family has no desire to restrict research and to impede the fight against disease. What they desire is recognition and acknowledgment that it was the malignancy which she personally suffered and died from that became a milestone for the rest of the human race.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Deadly Secret: The Strange Disappearance of Kathie Durst / by Matt Birkbeck

Robert Durst was (and remains) a very strange man. Sometimes when you're incredibly rich, the case with Durst whose family's mega-real estate franchise owns entire sections of Manhattan, you can get away with it.  From the time he was born in 1943 until 1982, when his wife Kathie went missing never to be seen again, this was very much the case with the son and heir to the Durst legacy. Robert's personal and psychological misgivings were kept under wraps or acknowledged only in passing as "eccentricities". The fact that he witnessed his mother's grisly suicide at the tender age of seven--she leapt to her death from the roof of the garage--was widely known and contributed to widespread speculation on his ongoing behavioral irregularities. Murmurs of problems in the marriage were prevalent. The couple's separate lives, an prior abortion, mood swings, domestic abuse (both emotional and physical), Robert's demotion within the family business, Kathie's filing for divorce and Robert's reluctance to settle matters financially all caused a stir within the couple's social circle. Suspicions immediately pointed to Durst in 1982 when Kathie went missing after a seemingly routine weekend at the couple's Westchester (NY) lake house, this in spite of the fact that no one seemed more surprised or aggrieved than Robert by the event. But despite multiple sightings by various individuals in the days immediately following Kathie's disappearance and conscientious efforts ongoing throughout the preceding months and years, she was never seen again.

For the following few decades, nothing much happened of any relevance. Kathie remained missing and no new clues surfaced. But a new District Attorney in Westchester County suddenly reopened the case in 2000 prompting a reinvigorated attempt to pursue the cause and reasons involving Kathie's disappearance. The legal proceedings coerced Robert Durst to go into hiding in Galveston where, to disguise himself, he dressed as a woman and pretended to be mute. Living alone in a small rented home he shared with a tenant named Morris Black, Durst began to feel particularly edgy around the time of the murder of Susan Berman, a longtime friend and confidante who may or may not have been involved in Kathie's disappearance. In a whirlwind series of events, Durst consequently killed Black, acting in self-defense he would later testify, dismembered the body and dumped the remains in Galveston Bay where they were discovered only months after Berman's murder. With still no evidence to tie him to his missing wife, Durst was ultimately apprehended, tried for the murder of his neighbor and acquitted, having to serve 9 months in jail for covering up Black's death after which he served out his probation and resumed a residence in Houston. Kathie has never been found.

Author and investigative journalist Birkbeck published this book in 2002 prior to Durst's subsequent bond-jumping in 2006 when he and his prosecutor actually ran into each other at the Galleria. Still, the foundation for the very, very strange life of Robert Durst is well laid out. What would seem like another salacious "48 Hours" episode--Kathie McCormack was very beautiful, Durst was very rich, the family name was a high profile one, etc.--is actually a much deeper and more provocative story altogether. The relationship between the two very opposited people is carefully examined, scrutinizing their habits, personalities, rampant drug use and stubborn disagreements. For all his quirks and secretiveness, Robert Durst may be no more than a guy who just didn't 'fit' with the life his father and those around him wanted him to have. That and his borderline schizophrenia consequently generated some unfortunate life circumstances. As it's presented, he and Kathie's marriage was actually a happy one, prosperous and joyful in parts even near the end. Withstanding the circumstances surrounding the disappearance, the situation just doesn't seem like one in which Robert would have committed to killing his wife (too obvious). The 2010 movie All Good Things starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst as Durst and Kathie, while admittedly flawed, does a respectable job of following the case through to the present. And, in what has to be one of the most spectacularly creepy special features on any DVD ever, Robert Durst himself is actually present (and vocal) with the director during the DVD's audio commentary! Figure that one out. (364.1523 BIRKBECK)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Gone Til' November: A Novel / by Wallace Stroby

New Jersey native Wallace Stroby's life shares much in common with that of notorious HBO villain Tony Soprano, or more accurately, that of the actor who plays him, James Gandolfini. It's one reason why many of his books cover themes associated with the infamous TV capo and those within the criminal element who are like him. Born in Long Branch, a town along the Jersey Shore, Stroby grew familiar with many of the archetype ruffians represented in his thrillers right up until he graduated from Rutgers (Gandolfini's alma mater). From there he worked as a reporter and editor for the Newark based Star-Ledger newspaper, a publication covering the greater part of New Jersey, until his novels broke it big in the mid-2000's. 2010's Gone Til' November is about a New Jersey contract killer who travels to Florida only to be confronted by sheriff's deputy Sara Cross, a cop and woman with her own problems.

Hopedale, FL sheriff's deputy Sara Cross' has a lot of problems. She's divorced to a deadbeat who won't pay his alimony, she gets migraines frequently, she's prone to bad relationships--she still has issues about her ex-boyfriend, also a sheriff's deputy on the same force--and her 6-year-old son's got leukemia. Still, Sara's never been one to back down from a confrontation, especially if it involves a questionable situation like the one her current case involves. Having stumbled onto the scene of a roadside shooting in an isolated, swampy portion of town, Sara immediately senses something's not quite right. She finds Billy Flynn (her former partner and ex) just after he's shot a twenty-two-year-old black man during a routine traffic stop. He claims it was self-defense, initiated when an altercation broke out after Billy asked to see inside the trunk which, upon examination, does contain a hefty assortment of illegal firearms. But Sara isn't so sure about Billy's story and her policing instincts instantly start to perk up as she begins investigating.

Meanwhile, New Jersey crime boss Mikey-Mike has a major drug deal about to go through down in Florida and doesn't want anything funny to happen. So he sends his man Morgan, an over-the-hill contract killer looking for one last paycheck, to "seal the deal". But even though Morgan's been there and done that all before, his instincts aren't as sharp as they once were, he's not as sharp, especially when he crosses paths with a snakey Sheriff's deputy who might be on to him. Stroby is a first-rate crime writer and this is another quality novel. Without revealing too much and never selling the plot short, the author weaves the story around characters who know the score and the stakes but, like the reader, seldom know what's about to hit them. Sara and Morgan as the two protagonists are both characters with a keen sense of when their luck will run out and yet they can't help track down the truth, even to their ultimate peril. In fact, they seem almost a perfect match, their mutually flawed character made bare and their numerous weakness exposed during every encounter. At no time is their an issue with whether their personal lives affect their professional choices because, as Stroby so brilliantly portrays, they always do. (MYS STROBY)

First Lines Quiz: Week 2

Ever long for the farming life?

Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the LandGrowing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land by Kurt Timmermeister

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is Timmermeister's account of his transition from a restauranteur who kind of plays around with producing his own food to a full-fledged, leaning-toward-self-sufficient farmer. He purposefully attempts to de-romanticize his story, even though it is clear that he began his journey as a starry-eyed city guy longing for the slower, stress-free bucolic life.

Timmermeister takes a practical, rather than ideological approach to food. He likes good food, and generally that means as fresh as possible, with as few additives as possible. He also aims to make his farm as self-sufficient, although he is not attempting to live off the grid, and he frequently buys baby animals and brings them onto the farm. He mentions that while he would rather have organic hay for his animals, for example, there is only one guy who will deliver hay to the island where he lives. It isn't organic hay, so he makes do with that and doesn't worry about it too much.

The pressure of finance is a constant presence in this book; it isn't cheap to keep even a small farm, and the author directly addresses that several times throughout the book. I appreciated that because when I am reading memoirs of city folk who give up their successful city jobs to go raise goats in the country or make cheese or whatever, that is always the question in my mind: how can they afford to do that???? Do they have some financial guardian angel waiting in the wings that never gets mentioned in the book? By the end of the book, it is unclear to the reader whether the farm actually does turn a profit, even after 20 years. It seems unclear to Timmermeister as well, or perhaps it's just that he's reluctant to make the full accounting that would show him the financial fitness of his operation in a definitive way.

The book is not quite a memoir, because the reader doesn't get a real sense of Timmermeister's personality. He explains the logic behind many of his decisions about his property and his philosophy on food, but the reader doesn't get a sense of Timmermeister as a human being. We do get a bit of the chronology of the development of his farm, but it's not exactly a memoir of the farm, either. He seems to be writing the book to an audience of neophyte farmers like himself 20 years ago. He explains a lot of his early farming mistakes and gives little tidbits of advice about how to avoid similar predicaments. The book isn't exactly a how-to, either, but I think it is closer to that than a memoir. I enjoyed reading this book, although I wished that he had explained a little more about cheese-making and less about slaughtering and butchering pigs (there is a whole chapter devoted to this topic). Overall, though, very interesting.

View all my reviews

More Writers Behaving Badly

I can't say why I find literary feuds so amusing. The stakes are frequently big ideas, but in the tussle the combatants tend to get so personal. Perhaps it is the contrast? And, of course, writers do make the best, funniest insults. Last week, Christopher Hitchens (Hitch-22, God is not great) had an article in the New York Times explaining what makes a good literary feud. Doesn't sound like Mr. Hitchens is much in favor of the literary olive branch, either. Click here for the full article.

Friday, June 10, 2011

To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story / words by Casey Scieszka; art by Steven Weinberg

"This is me, Casey. This is Steven. We're both from the United States, but absurdly enough we met here, in Morocco."

So it was with the author and illustrator of this cartoon travelogue who parlayed their summer vacation abroad into a globetrotting tour of nine countries, an engagement and a cool little book. Introduced in their junior year of college in an Arabic speaking course, Casey and Steven discovered that their passion was traveling was mutual and, after finishing college a year later, they set off on a multi-year excursion teaching English in China and Southeast Asia. Following that they lived for a year in Mali where Casey studied the role of Islam in education on a Fulbright scholarship and Steven taught English to the local villagers. All the while they kept journaling--Casey the writer, Steven the cartoonist--escapades, narrating their mostly engaging adventures with snappy, upbeat optimism. Representing the kind of wanderlust so many young Americans have, the book is a good armchair travel read for teens and young people wishing to see the world and expand their boundaries. (910.4092273 SCIESZKA)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lilian Jackson Braun dies at 97

The popular mystery author Lilian Jackson Braun died last weekend at age 97. She wrote the long-running "Cat who" series of cozy mysteries. Click here for the link to a The New York Times article on the author's death printed 6/7/11.

Reading lists, reading lists

People Magazine has published their list of picks for great summer reads -- take a look: People’s Picks for Summer.

Or.....if you want to get a little brainier, the staff of the NY Times Book Review has published theirs too: check them out here.

We've got a bunch more here at the library as well, in case you'd like to stay local -- the Bibliographies page on our website has a complete list.

Caribbean Fiction

In The Name of Salome: A Novel / by Julia Alvarez
The life of Salome Urena, called the “Emily Dickinson of the Dominican Republic”, begins in 1850 when she’s born into a country undergoing intense political upheaval and cultural tension. A brilliant writer with a beautifully poetic soul, Salome is only 17 when she publishes her first set of captivatingly patriotic poems instantly transforming her into a national icon. But her fame comes at a price, as witnessed by the travails of her and her daughter Camila later in life. (FIC ALVAREZ)

Island Beneath The Sea / by Isabel Allende
In 1700, Zariete is born a slave in Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) and soon bought by plantation owner Toulouse Valmorain. Though a reasonable master, Toulouse is soon consumed by the complications of plantation life where it seems the only means to make a profit is through brutality and oppression. Things change quickly when, following Overture’s legendary slave revolt, Zariete and Toulouse are forced to escape with their two children, had illegitimately, to the bawdy streets of New Orleans and a new and different life. (FIC ALLENDE)

The Dew Breaker / by Edwidge Danticat
In modern times, “the Dew Breaker” is seen by those around his Brooklyn neighborhood as a quiet, kind family man and upstanding citizen. But in his former life in Haiti, he was a brutally violent individual, a ‘torturer’ and murderer of many, his vulgar bloodlust virtually knew no end. Jumping back and forth through time, the dual lives of the man known as the Dew Breaker resonates at a particularly keen level, showing how the past contributes to the present and some men are never as they seem. (FIC DANTICAT)

Beautiful Maria of My Soul: Or The True Story of Maria Garcia y Cifuentes, the Lady Behind A Famous Song: A Novel / by Oscar Hijuelos
Maria Garcia y Cifuentes is the jewel of post-WWII Havana. A poor girl who has risen to prominence through her distinguished beauty, she can be seen everywhere from advertisements in magazines, dancing in nightclub hotspots and walking the streets on the arm of one of the city’s richest and most powerful businessmen. But it’s all come at a very high price, one which becomes even costlier with the onset of the Cuban revolution. ‘Beautiful Maria’ is a sequel to Hijuelos’ Pulitzer winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. (FIC HIJUELOS)

The Book of Night Women / by Marlon James
In early 19th century Jamaica, slave Lilith is both feared and ostracized for her fiery green eyes which immediately set her apart from others on the plantation. But after killing a slave driver who tries to rape her, Lilith catches the attention of the Night Women, a secret society plotting a rebellion against the plantation owners. Soon a plan of action towards revolt is put into motion with Lilith squarely in the middle of things. (FIC JAMES)

Annie John / by Jamaica Kincaid
On the island of Antigua, 10-year-old Annie John lives with her mother and attends the local grammar school for girls. In the succeeding years as Annie reaches adolescence and womanhood as well as the recognition of her growing clinical depression. With time, she’s propelled toward the critical decision of whether to depart from her home and native culture or remain near the family and heritage she loves. (FIC KINCAID)

He Drown She In The Sea / by Shani Mootoo
On the Caribbean island of Guanagaspar (fictional), half-caste Harry St. George falls hopelessly in love with wealthy society girl Rose, the daughter of his mother’s employer. Doomed to love her from afar throughout adolescence and into early adulthood, Harry is forced to forget about her when he moves to Canada. But fate brings them together again when Rose also relocates to the same Canadian city. Can their love bloom now that the social divides have changed? (FIC MOOTOO)

A House for Mr. Biswas / by V.S. Naipaul
Born to Indian immigrants on the British colonial island of Trinidad, Mohun Biswas has been declared something of a bad seed since birth, a local Hindu prophet stating that he’d soon be the downfall of his parents and a constant bane to the local Indian community. Knowing this, Mohun has always yearned for a place to live, a place he can call his own even though it’s evident that luck is never on his side. But with his plucky initiative, it’s clear that Mr. Biswas is one islander who won’t be put down by obstacles. (FIC NAIPAUL)

Prospero’s Daughter / by Elizabeth Nunez
In this retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, fugitive English doctor Peter Gardner has managed to abscond with his three-year-old daughter, Virginia, to a small island off the coast of Trinidad. Befriending them there is five-year-old native boy Carlos who gradually entwines himself into the lives of the two new arrivals. (FIC NUNEZ)

Broken Paradise: A Novel / by Cecilia Samartin
In Cuba of 1956, cousins Nora and Alicia are members of the privileged class enjoying a life of lavish parties, fine dining and idyllic days at the beach. But in the coming years, as revolution washes over the island and Fidel Castro oversees the removal of aristocratic advantages, Nora and Alicia are forced to depart ways with Nora emigrating to America and Alicia staying behind. As the years then decades pass, the two keep in touch, each remembering a past gone forever amid an always uncertain present. (FIC SAMARTIN)

The Feast of the Goat / by Mario Vargas Llosa
In the final days of the Trujillo regime, the dictator himself goes about his business, seemingly waiting patiently for his impending assassination. Meanwhile his Secretary of State has sequestered himself and his family into self-imposed exile in another country. Nearly thirty years later the former secretary’s youngest daughter, Urania, returns to her birthplace to confront the after effects of her home country. (FIC VARGASLL)