Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review: The Immortal Life if Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: Historical Non-Fiction
Pages: 362
Warnings: References to Tuskegee and other racial injustices, e.g. Jim Crow south, freaky descriptions of early radiation treatment
Rating: 4.5/5

Usually I read fiction (fantasy or science fiction or whatever) because I need a compelling story-line to keep me engaged. For me, it isn't enough for an author to have great skill at crafting sentences, their books also need a reasonably cool plot. I completely understand why the books of non-fiction writers are never judged based on how well they make a tale hang together, but there it is. I'm pleased to say that "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" delivers on all fronts. This book was a fantastic read by any way I measure it.

While the narrative Skloot writes about are anything but simple, her style of writing is easy to follow and her structure flows well. For clarity's sake, the year in which the majority of the chapter's action takes place is labeled at the beginning of the chapter. The first plot-line follows Henrietta Lacks herself, a woman born in 1920 and who died of a vicious strain of cervical cancer in 1951 (source). The second is about how Rebecca Skloot approaches and gradually wins the trust of Deborah, Mrs. Lacks' youngest daughter (in the early 2000's). The third story is a more clinical view of the history of consent in medicine (which sounds slightly textbook-y because it is), which converges on the HeLa case and branches off in some notable directions.

I hate to divulge too much of the book if it will stop anyone from reading it on their own time, but I want to state there are some admirable qualities to Skloot's narratives beyond being compelling as heck. Early on, Skloot makes it clear that she is a white woman telling the story of a black family. She doesn't avoid the fact that her being a white women that has her coming from a completely different, privileged world. As another white person, I can't make any definitive statements about how Skloot portrays Mrs. Lacks and her family; however I believe she is trying to be a respectful ally. That means Skloot presents the details of Mrs. Lack's life as accurately as possible, without malice or judgement. It means that she portrays the hurdles she has to leap to gain even the tiniest bit of trust trust from the Lacks family as  reasonable road blocks the family has created after numerous people have tried to take advantage of them (which is what they are).

On the other side of the immensely personal retelling of Mrs. Lacks life and death is a small-scale retelling of how medical science used and misused Mrs. Lacks' cells, code named HeLa. There is a brief overview of other cases that share similarities with Mrs. Lacks'. You see, medical science has no small history of experimentation on minorities, and of taking and using remarkable tissue samples without asking. HeLa was probably the most fascinating example of how patient's and doctor's best interests can diverge. No matter how I look at it, I feel like Mrs. Lacks was treated to a grave injustice, as was her family.

I think this book is the complete package. Skloot is descriptive without being wordy, her writing juggles several intertwining story-lines without getting confusing and she has a knack for getting her readers emotionally invested. It was a lot more focus on a good, evocative story than I was expecting from a non-fiction book, so if you would prefer facts over feelings, this book might not be worth it to you. If you're traditionally a fiction reader like myself, this is a great way to get into absolutely wonderful non-fiction, where I realized stories can mean more when they're real. More than that, this book started me asking questions about how the legal relationship between medical professionals and patients should look. I don't know the answers, but those are questions worth asking. One warning: I'm not sure if this will affect anyone else quite as strongly, but the descriptions of early radiation treatment for cervical cancer freaked me out!

Questions and Comments Welcome~

Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: Crossroads Road

Author: Jeff Kay
Genre: Fiction, Humor
Pages: 196
Warnings: Fat Hatred, Race and Gender Fail
Rating: 2.5/5

In the interest of full disclosure, I received this book from the LibraryThing Member Giveaway.

"Crossroads Road" is main character Jovis' account of a series of intentionally ridiculous events. Jovis' mother-in-law, whom he has lovingly dubbed "Sunshine", wins the lottery and several million dollars. She's willing to give her children and their families a large chunk of it (2 million dollars) so long as they agree to live on a cul-de-sac with her. All of her children agree and hijinks ensue.

I have to say it right away but this book didn't get funny for me until after the halfway mark. Kay seems to rely on two major sources of humor, and I only found the second method effective. The first half of the book is intended to be situational comedy regarding Jovis' outrageous in-laws. I can enjoy this style of humor based on my intense love of Terry Prachett's Discworld series, but Jovis' rubbed me the wrong way. To be fair, Jovis' in-laws do behave in some ridiculous ways, but most of the scene-building is punctuated by the narrator's internal monologue. Spoiler: Jovis is a raging asshole. I suspect most of the narrator's snide remarks about his family are supposed to be funny, but they just struck me as mean-spirited.

For clarification purposes, let me provide a slice of each family's specially-tailored funny attribute. Also Jovi is married to Tara.

Sue is Tara's sister, and married to Matt. Sue is fat. All the jokes about Sue, and Sue's family, ultimately fall back of the fact that she's overweight. She "fakes" her way into needing a scooter, she's needy for attention,  she requires a special toilet seat and her husband got tricked into marrying her when she was young and not-fat. I do not get why someone who is overweight can suddenly become the butt of every joke and the ultimate villian in every situation. Suffice to say: fat jokes do not hit the spot for me.

Nancy is also Tara's sister, and married to Kevin. Nancy and Kevin are academics, and therefore eat gross food, are never on time to anything, don't watch new TV and have weird sexual fetishes. I will admit that I did find some of the jokes about Nancy and Kevin a bit more funny, but again Jovis' tone just made me feel like an jerk for wanting to laugh.

Ben is Tara's brother, and Buddy is Tara's step-sister, and I don't remember them being the butt of too many jokes. I wonder if it's because they're men, and there just aren't enough noxious stereotypes to play off of? On that note, there is a woman named Carina who is the only non-white character and she is impossible to understand (because of the accent).

Luckily, the second half of the book was funny when you realized that Jovis, dear sweet Jovis, was the butt of all the jokes. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be laughing with Jovis or at him, so it took a while for me to recognize that his mean-spirited remarks where supposed to illustrate what a giant douchebag Jovis was. While he's busy judging the other characters, they're busy judging him! That was when it started getting funny for me. Instead of viewing an event as a chance to laugh at Jovis' "crazy in-laws" I got to laugh at how his need to be the good guy kept making him snotty martyr. It is kind of fun watching an asshole dig their own grave. For that reason I loved the ending.

This book was just not as funny as I hoped it would be. I wasn't sure if I should be laughing at the main character's faux-witty remarks or how incredibly obnoxious he was being. When I finally settled down into mocking Jovis, I chuckled, but I didn't make me belly-laugh. Now the ending brought out a real laugh, but I don't think I should read 196 pages of build-up for one joke. If you really, really like fat jokes or if you like seeing assholes get what they deserve and you have a few hours you don't want back, this book is for you. If not, oh well.

And now, for some Terry Prachett!
People who are rather more than six feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders often have uneventful journeys. People jump out at them from behind rocks then say things like, "Oh. Sorry. I thought you were someone else."(source)
Comments and Questions Welcome~