Saturday, June 26, 2010

Without humor or history

Without Reservations: the travels of an independent woman

Alice Steinbach

Alice is a woman in her 50's who is divorced, has two grown sons who are leading their own lives, and loves her job at a newspaper reporter and columnist. However, when she looks in the mirror, she wonders where the risk-taker has gone and is worried that she is only defined by her actions. She decides to take a leave of absence from work and explore who she truly is while living in Paris, England, and Italy.

This book forced me to make an insightful observation about myself: I don't like travel memoirs that are based-solely on self-reflection. I like my travel memoirs to be humorous, contain historical/ecological information in them, or at least vividly describe the people and places that are encountered. Without Reservations was simply (or should I say complexly) self-reflection and sole searching with the surroundings and new-found friends playing a secondary role.

I did like the reasoning behind Alice's trip: she was worried that she was so independent and entrenched in her career that she was being judged based on those qualities alone. But, who else was she? This is something I struggle with as well so many of her reflections that went down those lines resonated with me.

Overall, if you like the self-reflective type of memoir then this may be your book!

Monday, June 21, 2010

An intriguing lack of intrigue

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (Millennium Trilogy #3)
Stieg Larsson

***Includes major spoilers if you haven't read book two***

The long-awaited final chapter to the Millennium Trilogy starts off the exact instant that the second book left off. Salander has been taken to the hospital after confronting Zalachenko and she is the center of a salacious criminal trial - a trial that could uncover a secret Swedish agency like the world has never seen. While confined in isolation at the hospital, Salander's unlikely group of friends (Blomvkist, Armansky, and even Berger) along with a cast of new characters are working to clear her name...and write a best-selling expose at the same time!

***End spoilers***

Okay, I am prepared for the heckles from Larsson-Loving crowd. I just wasn't that into this book! I LOVED The Girl Who Played With Fire, thought it was brilliant, but this final installment lacked what the first two books had in spades: INTRIGUE. The first two books had me on the edge of my seat, never knowing what was coming next; each chapter was a thrilling revelation of a plot twist. In this book, I felt like we had all of the answers from the very beginning; we knew the major players and how they were related, or the few plot twists were given away at the beginning. A couple of surprises were thrown in but they were extremely mild and involved peripheral characters.

This book read like Millennium Trilogy installment 2B, which I didn't really care for. I enjoyed the separate and unique plots of books one and two that were woven together by shared characters and shady foreshadowing. This felt like Larsson wrote a 1200 page book and the editor decided to pull a Harry Potter (the movie) and divide the final manuscript in two, right down the middle. I would have read a 1200 page book. And if books two and three would have been combined (perhaps the second half shortened just a bit) then it would have gotten a higher rating from me.

Ultimately, this book tied up all the loose ends and I liked how my favorite characters ended up, but the suspense fell short for me.

Friday, June 11, 2010

More like a bad post-travel dinner party

No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late
Ayun Halliday

Have you ever had friends who go on a trip together and, upon their return, host a get-together at their place in order to share photos and stories? You show up full of excitement and high expectations, which are quickly dashed when your friends start telling stories that are not funny to anyone but them yet they insist on telling them in excruciating detail, punctuated with fits of giggles, while you barely manage to keep a smile plastered on your face and resist looking at your watch more than every five minutes.

That's what this book was like. Painful but I kept reading in case the next page contained the side-splitting story that was promised. But, it never came. Why two stars you ask? There was a story involving the author and a camel that brought a true smile to my lips. No chuckle, mind you, but something that didn't quite resemble the grimace that was plastered there the other 260 pages.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

HeLa: immortal cells or the goddess of death? I say both.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

Tissue and cell donation are essential for the advancement of scientific research. Without these, researchers would not have been able to develop vaccines that save children's lives, test for genetic diseases to better prepare for and understand challenges facing those afflicted with things like Downs Syndrom, understand diabetes to help millions of people easily control their blood sugar, or develop in-vitro fertilization so loving couples can have the children they want. However, when these tissues and cells are taken without patient knowledge or consent, and then those tissues and cells go on to make someone millions (sometimes billions) of dollars, who has rights to them?

That is the story of Henrietta Lacks, the donor of the first cells (named HeLa) that were successfully cultured, the donor of cells that became "immortal" because they continue to thrive today in thousands of labs around the world. These cells have been involved in the most important discoveries involving medical science since 1951 and many doctors and researchers hail her as a hero. But, her cells were taken without her knowledge when she was a poor, black, female patient at John Hopkins Hospital being treated for an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Her family was not aware of it either until 25 years after her death, her family who received no compensation for the HeLa cells, and generations after Henrietta have continued to live on extremely small incomes with no health insurance.

There is a very important ethical and scientific debate going on as to the ownership and rights to donor cells and what level of consent (if any) should be given by the donor. There are important points to both sides of the story and is definitely an issue that will not be resolved before many court cases are tried and many mutually respectful discussions are had. Who knows what the future holds but I thought one of the best quotes of the book came from Deborah Lacks (Henrietta's daughter), when repeatedly asked if she was angry about what happened to her mother and mad at the doctors and researchers responsible, she replied, "...if you gonna go into history, you can't do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different."

Deborah Lacks often said that she was glad that her mother's cells had gone on to help so many people, Deborah just wanted to be aware of what was going on with them. She felt that by knowing more about the cells, she was closer to a mother that she didn't remember. I think that was one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the story: the Lackses in this story are not highly educated people, they did not know what cells even were let alone were able to comprehend what it meant to still have the cells alive and to run extensive research on them. Their anger and fear often stemmed from a lack of understanding, and no doctors took the time to explain - in understandable language - what was going on. For me, the most touching part of the story was when a young doctor finally took the time to explain the science as well as took the time to listen to the family.

I thought this book was a great story with regards to the life and family of Henrietta Lacks. Sometimes her descendants aggravated me because of the outlandish things they believed about the cells and their extreme paranoia, but I kept asking myself how I would respond if I didn't have a science background and had lived a life more similar to the Lacks children - probably just like they did. As a scientist, I really wanted more info on the cells themselves and some of the research that had been conducted on them, and more about some of the moral and ethical debates that are currently being argued.

Overall, an interesting book that reminded me (again) that science can be scary for people who don't understand and reinforced the value of being able to and taking the time to effectively communicate with non-scientists about issues that pertain to them. Not only the time, but also the compassion to care.

*** SPOILER***

One aspect of the family history that really angered me is that no one addressed the fact that it was Henrietta's husband, Day, who most likely gave her the HPV that developed into the horrendous cancer that quickly killed her! It was casually mentioned that he ran around on her, had sex with her as well (even when she was extremely ill), and gave her syphilis and gonorrhea in addition to HPV. The children spent so much time focusing on the doctors and blaming them for killing their mother but no one turned that finger on their own family and placed even a little of the blame on the unfaithful and philandering husband.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The many manifestations of love

Cutting for Stone
Abraham Verghese

Marion and Shiva Stone are identical twin boys born under unique circumstances in Ethiopia: their mother is an Indian nun who dies in childbirth, their father is a skilled English surgeon who disappears after their birth, they are slightly conjoined at the head, and then they are raised at Missing Hospital in Ethiopia by surgeons. Their youth is full of ups-and-downs, but all the while they are surrounded by family, until a single event threatens to change everything they have known. This novel tells the story of their life through Marion's POV as he struggles with family, love, and career.

This was a beautifully written novel that is ultimately about love: silent love that is bottled up inside and never expressed because of fear; love that is expressed and magically, sometimes seemingly against all odds, lasts a lifetime; love between family members, a family that is unconventional but close; unrequited love that threatens to ruin a life; love between brothers, with the special link of being identical twins; and love for a career. The unique cast of characters were genuine and I was eager to learn more about each and every one of them, even the ones that I disliked. I greatly enjoyed the path of Marion's journey and the places (figuratively and literally) where he lives, each place providing a version of a family including father-figures that shape his life.

The lower than perfect rating is due to one aspect only: the beginning was unbelievably slow! Looking back, I realize the author wanted to give us a rich background for several of the main characters so we could better understand the life-changing decisions each of them made, but he did it in a very dry and unnecessarily long manner. Once I got into the meat of the story, I appreciated the background he provided but I remain bitter on how it was delivered - a distracting blemish on the surface of an otherwise flawless face. Cutting For Stone also contained an abundance of medical/surgical descriptions, which didn't bother me, I actually found it very interesting, but be warned.

If you can make it though the first 150 pages or so then you will be rewarded with a beautiful, heart-felt, and moving story.

A mere silhouette of the NR I know and love

The MacGregors: Serena ~ Caine
(Playing the Odds ~ Tempting Fate)
Nora Roberts

I am quickly learning that the early romance version of my favorite author is a mere silhouette of the best-selling powerhouse she has become.

Serena and Caine MacGregor are the youngest children of the great Daniel MacGregor - a modern-day Scottish lord that rules over his family with never-ending love and a hope that they all find the love he has known with his wife and children...even if that involves a bit of heavy-handed meddling! In the case of Serena and Caine, their potential true loves come in the duo of Justin and Diana Blade - estranged siblings of Comanche descent who always fight for what they want and prefer to gamble when the odds are in their favor.

This book lives up the expectations incurred from the Silhoutte reputation: love at first sight, flash-point passion, and happily-ever-after....and some truly yummy leading men! ;) I am far from conservative and greatly enjoy books that have a couple tumbles in the sheets, but I also like a semblance of a plot and development of relationships that are external to the primary love interest - both of which are lacking in this book even though there was lots of potential for both. Because the two stories are contained in one double volume, it is even more painfully obvious that they were written from a "mad-lib" romance format and many of the same phrases were used in each!

I actually don't place too much of the blame on NR, I have a feeling that Silhouette doesn't branch too far from the formulaic romance plot with lots of steamy overtones. It does make me have a lot more appreciation for NR's newer works, which demonstrate that great romance novels can actually be much more complex than simple bodice-ripping and can actually be enhanced by well-written secondary characters. I will forever recommend Nora Roberts books to others but, unless you are a true fan of the old-school romance style of writing, I would steer clear of the Silhouette editions.