Saturday, September 25, 2010

"The House at Riverton" by Kate Morton

Summary: At age 99, Grace recounts her days as a maid at Riverton Manor and her relationships with the two sisters who lived there: Hannah and Emmeline.  Ever since those days Grace has held onto the sisters' secrets, and now that her life is ending she feels the need to release them for the first time.

Musings: The House at Riverton is not typical fare for me, and although the novel's characters and basic conceit have certainly be done before, I still found myself interested in the intrigue, scandal, and secrets that tore apart a family of the noblesse.

As a maid, Grace is able to observe the family members without being noticed, but as time goes on, she also is taken into Hannah's confidences.  Grace is a devoted servant who gives up much to serve Hannah, and because of that, she sometimes seems to lack personality herself.  In fact, when Grace finally learns a huge secret about her own history (a secret, of course, that had been obvious to the reader for awhile), she reacts strongly then promptly forgets about it and her life seems mostly unchanged afterward.

There's a long time building up to the "scandal" that has been alluded to for most of the novel, and the relationships at the scandal's core are fairly ordinary and unsurprising.  The book concludes at a decent pace, but I found, once finished, that I had very little to say about the book.  I would suggest it to those looking for a historical mystery and with some elements of romance, but it's certainly not a standout.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Those That Wake" by Jesse Karp

Summary: Mal is not one to turn down a fight, and he doesn't think much about his new foster parents.  But when he gets an unexpected phone call from his estranged brother late one night, he sets out to find him.  Instead, he discovers a strange building, empty except for floors fulled of unmarked doors.

Laura has been raised by doting and supportive parents, and she's surprised when, the morning of an interview, her parents keep out of touch while on vacation.  When she finally does discover them, her parents don't recognize her any more.  In fact, no one Laura knew remembers her.

Mal and Laura find themselves thrust together with two others--Remak, an agent for a research organization, and Mike, a jaded high school teacher--as they try to discover what is happening to the country and why they are being singled out.

Musings: Those That Wake is an unexpectedly engrossing dystopia that, while not earth-shattering in its secrets and world-building, is fast-paced and different enough to entertain even over-loaded dystopian readers.  The protagonists, Mal and Laura, are sympathetic characters, despite their opposite upbringings.  They're reminiscent of the good girl/"bad" guy pairing of Connor and Risa in Unwind, though Mal's "fighter" persona is more fully realized in this novel.

Mal and Laura are a little older than typical young adult protagonists (both are 17), and because they are more mature, the book reads somewhat different than others of the genre.  Mal's troubled upbringing and the callousness of his mother seems real, as do the gritty details of his various physical fights throughout the novel.  Laura, in being both over-protected and well-prepared by her parents, also seems like a real suburban teenager.  Perhaps the least likely aspect of their characters is the ease at which they grow to like each other, but there's no overt romance to shadow the story.

The mystery of what has brought these people together forms the central focus of the novel, as it should be.  It's clear there is a connection among various forces, specifically in New York City, which is causing problems not just for the main characters but for the entire world.  It felt a lot like the idea of "the Pattern" in Fringe, and I particularly liked that aspect of the novel.

Like in many mysteries, dystopias and horror movies, the truth behind the weirdness of what is happening in Those That Wake is somewhat less exciting than the weirdness itself.  Much of the science-fiction explanations in the novel are based off the concept of groupthink (to use a 1984 term), and, although well-explained, I first thought the ideas a bit far-fetched.  But then I remembered an article I had read in the New York Times in which a social scientist, Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, reported that “Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don’t even know who are one, two and three degrees removed from you...There’s kind of an emotional quiet riot that occurs and takes on a life of its own, that people themselves may be unaware of. Emotions have a collective existence — they are not just an individual phenomenon” ("Strangers May Cheer You Up, Study Says" by Pam Belluck, 12/4/2008). Like the researchers discussed in the newspaper article, Those That Wake explores the ways in which we, as humans, are subconsciously affected by those around us.  The connection between the science fiction and real science made the novel even more interesting.

The main enemy in the novel, "big corporations," was a bit vague for me.  However, I enjoyed the pacing and characterization of the novel and would recommend it to others.

Those That Wake will be published in March 2011.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my honest review.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

Summary: In this nonfiction piece, Skloot examines the personal stories, science, and history surrounding the HeLa cells.  The HeLa cells were the first "immortal cells," as they were capable of indefinitely reproducing in culture.  Although these cells are in labs around the world and have been used to develop treatments for and research into the world's most deadly illnesses, few people knew the truth about who the HeLa cells came from.  Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman dying of cervical cancer in the 1950's when her cells were taken without her knowledge, and her family has struggled with their mother's history ever since.

Musings: This book has been getting a fair amount of press recently, and after reading it myself, I believe the discussion is completely warranted.  Skloot has done an excellent job of weaving together the personal stories of the Lacks family (particularly Henrietta's daughter Deborah) with an understanding of cell biology and a timeline of the development of cell research over the last sixty years.  Henrietta's story is intriguing both for its ordinariness and for its heartbreak.  Uneducated and pregnant by her cousin at fourteen, Henrietta nonetheless raised her children through hard work and determination.  But when she died young of cervical cancer, leaving her children with abusive relatives, many of the children entered a downward spiral they are still trying to emerge from decades later.

Going in, I assumed the book would be an exposure of an African American woman abused and exploited by the white medical system, much like in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment.  However, the real story turned out to be much more nuanced.  Through a history of case law and scientific codes, Skloot shows that it was not illegal for doctors to take a person's cells and use them in research--it wasn't illegal in 1951, and it's not illegal today.  And though Henrietta died of cervical cancer, it wasn't through a lack of medical care on the part of John Hopkins, the hospital she entered.  Nevertheless, there are more subtle instances of racism at play, particularly in the education of Henrietta's family.  Her children only learned that their mother's cells were being used around the world decades after their mother's death, and throughout the years, despite becoming minor celebrities because of the HeLa cells, the family members never really understood what had happened.  They didn't understand the concept of "cell," let alone the complex biology behind what was being done with the cells.  They were pulled among scientists who wanted information from them to study HeLa better, journalists who wanted information for their own pieces, and people out to make--or convince them to make--money off of HeLa.  Through it all, the family continued to suffer, both physically and mentally.

The uncertainty of what happened to her mother had a large impact on Henrietta's daughter Deborah.  In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Deborah travels with Skloot as they investigate the family's history.  Deborah wavers between giddy excitement and terror as she learns more in a few days than she had in so many years.

Although the Lackses' family history is the backbone of the story, Skloot's sections on advancement in scientific research are no less researched or less interesting.  These chapters of the book are also filled with the histories of the doctors who made these advancements possible.

I was shocked by how quickly I finished the book and how difficult it was to put down.  It's a fascinating look at the history of one part of science from the focal point of one woman and her cells.

P.S.  This is the 83rd book I've read this year, which means I've officially surpassed my total read (82 books) from 2009!

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"How Did You Get This Number" by Sloane Crosley

Summary: A collection of humorous essays by Crosley.

Musings: I had really enjoyed Crosley's first book, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, in large part because I identified so strongly with her mid-20s uncertainty and frustration.  In How Did You Get This Number, Crosley is a little older and the stories a little less unified.  The essays are primarily reflections of her travels or of childhood events, and while there's still plenty of humor, it's a bit less biting and a little more somber.

I still loved Crosley's ability to self-deprecate and expose the idiosyncrasies and obsessive tendencies we all have yet try to hide from others.  Her first essay, "Show Me the Doll," about a spur of the moment decision to visit Lisbon, was great.  Traveling to Europe is very popular with my age group and is constantly romanticized, but Crosley shows that being an impulsive jet-setter is not enough to ensure you have a good time.  I also appreciated her second essay, "Lost in Space," where she discusses being diagnosed with a severe temporal-spatial deficit as a child.  Although I don't have nearly the difficulties that Crosley does, I think I certainly share some of that deficit, so it was nice to know my inability to follow directions or read a map may not be due solely to me being an idiot.

The other essays were a little less successful, often suffering from poor pacing.  In several Crosley interposed current experiences with childhood experiences, but I found the connections forced.  She also wanders off into philosophical musings that were difficult to follow and lacked lasting significance.  I found this especially true in "It's Always Home You Miss," a generalized essay about New York City taxis.

As someone approaching the end of her 20s herself, I was a bit disconcerted to see some of the spunk I loved in Cake missing in this book.  But, perhaps it's just necessary to adjust to changing understandings and expectations as one ages.

Monday, September 6, 2010

"Lamb" by Christopher Moore

Summary: The book's subtitle is "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal," which is a pretty appropriate summary.  Biff, sarcastic but intensely loyal, retells the childhood, ministry, and death of his best friend, Joshua (the English translation of Jesus' Hebrew name).

Musings: Retellings of older, well-known stories are common place in modern literature, but the life and death of Jesus is one area that rarely gets expanded upon in fiction form (at least to my knowledge) for obvious reasons.  Yet clearly there's plenty of opportunity for interesting stories.  What was Jesus like with his family and friends?  How did he grapple with knowing he was the son of God?  What did he do during all those "missing" childhood/young adult years that the gospels don't speak to?  Clearly these are questions that can be addressed reverentially, but they can also be addressed in a more absurdist and even lighthearted way.  People who take their religion very seriously would undoubtedly be offended, but they'd probably never bother picking up a book like this.  So Moore begins with what I thought was a compelling conceit: tell the entire history of Jesus (Joshua) through the lens of a wise-cracking but devoted friend. 

Biff's called an asshole at the beginning of the novel, and the description is pretty apt.  Everything's a joke to him, and he has no problem lying or stealing for personal gain.  Joshua might attain enlightenment after studying at a strict monastery for years, but Biff confesses he mainly learned how to sleep with his eyes open.  But, Joshua is his best friend, and if Biff has one goal in life, it is to stand by and protect Joshua.  However, although he believes Joshua is the son of God, that doesn't necessarily translate to following all of his teachings or being especially pious.

And so it's Biff who brings spark to the story but who also keeps the novel from feeling complete from beginning to end.  The story's funny and the anachronisms are great, but, really, all the book is is the story of Jesus with some ribald color commentary.  Biff really doesn't grow or change as a person, and by the time Joshua's crucifixion occurs, I was looking for more characterization and empathy in Biff.

I did, however, enjoy learning about Joshua's growth and decision making.  Lamb addresses Joshua's difficult journey to accept his role as the son of God and the decisions he had to make along the way.  Especially fascinating was the way in which Joshua changed his stance from God's, marking the change from the Old Testament's emphasis on rules, wrath, and the divinely chosen to Joshua and the New Testament's focus on compassion, forgiveness, and salvation for all.  All sons must decide in what ways they support or challenge their fathers' views, and I enjoyed reading about Joshua's experience with that.

In the note at the end, Moore notes that the people most likely to understand the biblical references are the people least likely to read the book, but I do think some level of familiarity with Christianity is helpful.  From what I've heard, this is not Moore's best work, and the conceit stretches thin, but it was an enjoyable read.