Tuesday, July 27, 2010

By Any Other Name

I have begun to judge books by their covers (and titles).  There are so many good books to read, I have to use some sort of criteria to sort through them.

Had books I read been published differently, would I have made different decisions?

Most definitely.

The novel Little Bee originally published under the title The Other Hand in the U.K. before it was published in the U.S. with the new title.  I might not have read it otherwise — the U.K. title holds no interest to me, and the cover is interesting, but not as compelling.

A Reliable Wife was published with a different cover for the novel's paperback release.  After reading the book, I found I like the paperback cover, with the silhouette of a fashionable woman walking away from a train, more than the hardback cover.  However, I liked the hardback cover's snow and single cardinal for its artistic value.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in its original language and country under the title The Man Who Hates Women.  I guarantee you, I would not have read that book, no matter what the cover looked like.

What are some other examples you can think of, and how would your decision been different under different conditions?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: There Will Never Be Another You

I had seen Carolyn See's name in the Washington Post book section almost as long as There Will Never Be Another You sat on my shelf, a recommendation from my friend Kathy.  I took my time approaching the book, but once I started, I couldn't stop.

As the book opens, Edith's husband has died and the debris of his care covers their home.  She is alone, dragging bag after bag of medical and personal care items to the incinerator.  It's Los Angeles, it's a hot September morning and when she finally answers the ringing phone, her son Phil tells her to turn on the television because it will change her world.  Her life already has changed; what else could compete?

Phil's life is about to change, as well.  The loss of his stepfather was a sad event, but he has experienced loss already as a young boy when his father died.  His life goes on in the UCLA Medical Center where he skates along the top of life.  Dermatology is a low-risk specialty with few surprises.  Phil's wife Felicia is shrill and angry, unsettled in the life she chose but unable to articulate what will make it better.  His teenage daughter Eloise is absent in all but body. His son Vern is angry and confused, on the cusp of his life and may be destined to the horror of public middle school unless Phil can create a miracle for Vern and his life.

Into all this comes the U.S. military and its paranoia about the "next attack" on American soil, and how exactly dermatology is involved.  (Although after the cats, nothing should surprise Phil.)

The story is told primarily from two perspectives, Edith and Phil.  From time to time their stories overlap, and hearing the same situation from the two perspectives is a strange delight.  However, both seem to love each other but live totally separate lives, despite their paths crossing regularly when she volunteers at the medical center.  Edith also brings other people into the story, peripheral characters whom we see from afar until their stories begin.  Interestingly, only Edith is presented in the first person, which is disconcerting when other stories tug readers attention only to be re-introduced to the "I."

The acceleration of the story is subtle and gradual, like a hill you don't realize you're climbing until you're halfway up it.  The gentle presentation of the story does not prepare readers for the energy and conflict.

Lately, I have been impatient with books that take their time winding up — and at first, I thought I was again being wound up.  However, See makes this book one huge surprise, like the rollercoaster that didn't look that scary but snuck in enough dips and turns to keep the rider hanging on for dear life.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book and recommend it to readers who want to be reminded how they really cannot judge a book by its placid cover.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: Little Bee

From the first chapter of Little Bee, I was hooked.  The writing was exquisite, the characters interesting, the story compelling and the plot unique.

Like the book jacket itself states, I don't want to tell you too much about the book.  First of all, where would I begin?  Secondly, how could I stop?  While reading the book I tried to describe the story to my husband, David, and I know I was singularly unsuccessful.

However, this is a review and those who read this deserve something for their troubles, so I'll try again.

Little Bee has spent two years in an immigration facility in England, where she has learned impeccable English.  She is in England because of an encounter on a beach in her native Nigeria, and she brings with her only two items tossed aside on that beach, considered worthless to everyone but her.

She is alone, but in remarkable company.  Her journey takes her places I could never imagine.

I was most struck by Little Bee's observations and her precise, gorgeous language.

This book was written by a man whose native language is English, and yet he writes crisply as a young Nigerian woman fresh to this new world.  Cleave's words never err when he writes as any of the characters, but his presentation of Little Bee stuns me.  No language translates seamlessly from one natural rhythm to another — and in this book, Cleave writes Little Bee like someone translating herself into English.  I was captivated.

Please read this book, then let me know what you think.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Favorite Books So Far in 2010

More than half the year has passed, which gives us an opportunity to review our favorite reads of the year to date.  Here are mine, in no particular order.

Shades of Grey — But you knew that.  If Jasper Fforde isn't on my fave list, check the backyard for pods.  Then chat up some Fforde ffans to console yourself at my demise (and to protect yourself against other Pod People, who cannot in any way be confused with Fforde ffans).

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie — Lovely characters, interesting storyline.  Seldom do adults, let alone male adults, manage to create a good child.  Of the opposite sex, no less.  Rumor has it that this is the first of many, and I will be glad when the rumor is proven true.

The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre — H.P. Lovecraft rocks. Cthulu scares me.  'Nuff said.

The Gates — I found John Connolly's writing  a treat before, but this book about opening the gates of Hell — and the young boy with a dachshund who tries to stop it — puts him firmly on my must-read list.

Have a Little Faith — Again, another fave from a fave author.  I learned a little about religion and a lot about what I think about religion and people.

Okay, I see a trend here: I'm reading a lot of books by my favorite authors.  That isn't entirely bad, though, because if you peruse my reviews, I've put a few new authors in my rotation.  In fact, only one book in my reading list is.... er, okay, you're correct.

I will put a new author on my bookshelf this week.  Check back and see who's been added!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Here: Read the Declaration of Independence!

On Independence Day, I try to remind people how hard it was that the Founding Fathers did: declare independence from The Way Things Were Done Everywhere At The Time.  These courageous leaders did the right thing (in the opinion of modern-day Americans): they broke away from tyranny at any cost and were willing to pay whatever price if it failed.

The document they signed was treasonous — which, for those of you who haven't read much about 18th century monarchy lately, could lead not just to death, but a really icky, painful, public execution.  Oh, in England, drawing and quartering was one contemporary punishment.  We use that phrase lightly today, but it was really, truly, and literally ripping a human being into quarters.  There was some messy entrails stuff, too, but the real crowd-pleaser was the splitting into four pieces.

What preceded it would have been pretty gruesome, too, of course.  If you're going to make an example of someone, you don't want it over quickly.

So, the leaders who signed their names to the document took a huge risk.  Lucky for them, and for us, it paid off.

If you would like to see some really cool celebrities perform the document, watch this video. Otherwise, just keep reading and see for yourself what they signed:

The Unanimous Declaration
of the Thirteen United States of America

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. --Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.

He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states:

For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing taxes on us without our consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:

For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses:

For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule in these colonies:

For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments:

For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow citizens taken captive on the high seas to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

Signed by:
New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

Massachusetts: John Hancock, Samual Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Connecticut: Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York: William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey: Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Pennsylvania: Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Delaware: Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Maryland: Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Virginia: George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Source: The Pennsylvania Packet, July 8, 1776

(Delcaration of Independence courtesy of Archiving Early America)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I have no idea how Rebecca Skloot did it.  The subject of her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was huge, complex and overwhelming.  With a tenacity one sees only in action hero movies, Skloot conquered it so we could understand.  More importantly, she helped us understand why we should care.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks isn't just a story about some cells that wouldn't die, although that's at the center of the book.  Mostly, it is about the people around the cells.

Henrietta Lacks was a young, black mother who had a very aggressive form of cervical cancer.  Despite treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Henrietta died in 1951.

What happened in this situation changed medical science forever: cells taken from her tumor were cultured by a scientist and, remarkably, did not die.  Instead, they lived, even thrived, earning the moniker "immortal." 

The lab that originally grew the cells began sharing their booty so other scientists could use got a new tool for foiling many of the diseases and health issues humans face.  The immortal cells actually spawned the industry of growing and selling cells for medical use.

What complicates this situation is that no one in the Lacks family gave the doctors permission to take the cells, and the family was not notified that cells were taken and cultured.  In fact, the family was only contacted by scientists when they needed blood samples from Henrietta's family to help doctors with research and studies. 

The second complication is that the industry that grew around the HeLa cells benefitted financially — while the family of the woman whose cells made this possible languished in poverty.

These are the bare facts.  What Skloot does with this information is what makes the book unique: she paints both the big and small picture of Henrietta and the effects of her cells.  It tells the story of the science and the family.  It dabbles in international history and politics and takes readers to the small town in which Henrietta was born and raised. 

In this book, Skloot did the one thing science neglected to do: meet Henrietta and the people around her.  Readers meet Henrietta's family and friends.  Readers also find out about the science — and the scientists — behind the immortal cells.  As the book and story evolved, readers have a chance to change their minds and feelings about the situation.  There may be heroes and villains in the story, but Skloot lets readers make up their own minds about what title to assign to which characters.

Skloot worked on this book for a decade, researching it on her own time and money, gathering the information and facing dead ends and refusals of information.  I am grateful the author was so tenacious and brought readers such an amazing book, which I heartily recommend.