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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I've been aware of The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcks (#109) by Rebecca Skloot for quite awhile, but it took my Literary Circle choosing it as their initial selection for the 2011 - 2012 season to get me to read it.  This non-fiction New York Times best seller tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman who died in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore of cervical cancer.  Tissues from that tumor were taken and successfully cultured by scientist George Gey at Hopkins.  Those cells form the basis of the HeLa strain used for research on diseases and development of drugs to treat them all over the globe.  They are still alive today.

Henrietta's family knew nothing of the research that was being carried out for many years.  When they did become aware, they struggled both to accept and understand what had happened, and to gain recognition for their mother's role in advancing medical science.  The story is not pretty, but it is compelling.  It raises a number of issues about privacy and the consent of the patient donating tissue samples knowingly or unknowingly.  What is truly frightening in today's world of multi-billion tissue research is how little has actually been resolved concerning the protection of the patient and patient rights.  (And just where is the gall bladder they removed from me a couple of years ago; who's using it, and for what purpose?!)

Rebecca Skloot has done an admirable job in making Henrietta Lacks and her family real to the reader.  She also writes about the complex scientific discoveries and processes in a way that is easily understood by the lay person.  In the process she has raised a number of troubling ethical and moral issues.

If you've ever so much as given blood for a lab test, you'll want to read this book.  I can't wait to discuss it at our upcoming Literary Circle meeting.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Russian Winter

I really wanted to like Russian Winter (#108) by Daphne Kalotay, but I could only muster an indifferent reaction to the book after I trudged all the way through it.  After all, the book jacket promises "...a luminous first novel - a literary page-turner of the highest order..." in this book about a prima ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet who defects to the West during the Stalin era.  She dances in Paris and in London, but eventually winds up at the Boston Ballet as an artistic director for many years.  She decides late in her life to sell her fabulous collection of jewelry to benefit the Boston Ballet.  But Nina Revskaya has been keeping many secrets, and as news of the impending auction spreads, instead of purging her secrets along with the jewels, she finds that they are catching up to her instead.

Sounds like it should be interesting and exciting, yes?  Nyet!  Several times I almost gave up on this book, and I'm sorry I didn't.  The plot kept switching from Boston to Russia, from the past to the present, and from character to character at a glacial pace without moving the plot forward appreciably, but with heavy emphasis on the literary style. The feeling this reader got is that this is literature and that if I didn't appreciate it, it's because I'm not intellectual enough.  Ms. Kalotay has many literary credentials; she has taught at my alma mater Boston University, and has been a Fellow at a number of prestigious writers' workshops, but I think she's forgotten that the most important thing in a novel is the story.  If the author foreshadows events so heavily that the denoument elicits a yawn instead of a gasp, or creates characters with whom you can neither empathise or care enough to want to know what happens to them, what's the point?

I didn't learn anything new about the world of ballet; yes, I used to be a season ticket holder of the Boston Ballet when I lived in New England, but still...  The jewels that play a featured role in the plot are a set of Baltic amber, complete with an insect inclusion in every bead.  Ugh!  I found the idea so repulsive it was hard to even read about them in such detail.  The one thing that surprised me about this book is the poetry she includes that is supposedly written by the ballerina's husband, a minor Soviet poet.  I don't normally care for poetry, but if Vicktor Elsin were a real person, I would be looking for a translated copy of his work.

Would I recommend that you hunt down a copy of this book for your own collection?  Reader, I wouldn't.  I'll be glad to return my copy to the library and get on to something more meaningful.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Town Like Alice

I read A Town Like Alice (#107) by Nevile Shute because it was on the recommended list for my upcoming tour of Australia with Outdoor Adventure Travel.  I had vague recollections of seeing a Masterpiece Theatre version of the book many years ago.  I do remember Bryan Brown being crucified by the Japanese commander in the miniseries, but not much else.  I am so glad that I finally took the time to read this marvelous book.

Noel Strachan, a London soliciter, tells the story from his involvement with one of his Scotch clients who wishes to draw up a will for his brother's widow and her two children.  It's veddy, veddy British and a tad dusty to begin with, but once Mr. Stachan meets the surviving daughter after World War II and starts to learn her story, it's all the more compelling because of of its understatedness.  Jean Paget, it turns out, is a force to be reckoned with in her own quiet way.  Because her uncle didn't believe women could handle money, Strachan knows he and Jean will have a working relationship until she turns forty, many years in the future.  The legacy is a surprise to Jean, and she takes time to consider what she will do with it.  She decides to return to Malaya, where she and other British women and children were Japanese prisoners of war.  She feels she has a debt to pay to the Malayan villagers who allowed them to settle there for the duration of the war.  One debt she can never repay, however, is to Joe Harman, the Australian prisoner of war who tried to help them with food and other vital supplies, and who was beaten to death by the Japanese Captain Sugamo in front of them.  A chance encounter in Malaya sends Jean to Australia on her way home to England.  She's determined to see Alice Springs, the "bonza" town that Joe used to talk about.  That detour has quite an astounding effect on many, many lives, including Noel's.

This is one of the most satisfying stories I've read in a long, long time.  Mr. Shute says that this is the only one of his books that he based on an actual incident.  He borrowed the story of eighty Dutch women and children in Sumatra who endured two and a half years of marching around Sumatra because none of the Japanese wanted to be bothered with them.  By the time the war ended, there were fewer than thirty survivors.  Shute was fortunate in staying with one of the women and her family after the war and hearing of her experiences first hand, so Jean's story is based on fact.  You can find out more about this subject by following this link:  Women POWS in Sumatra - WWII

You can also see bits and pieces from various video versions on YouTube if you search "A Town Like Alice".  It really does bring the book to life, but as for me, I preferred reading it!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Devil Colony

James Rollins does it again with his latest Sigma Force novel The Devil Colony (#106).  A Native American protest gone wrong at an archaeological dig in Utah sets off a deadly chain of events.  Only this time it's personal for the Sigma team; Painter Crowe's niece is identified in pictures from the incident and now she's being pursued by both the US Government and unknown deadly forces.

In the meantime back in Washington, Gray Pierce is dealing with personal problems of his own with his aging parents as he and former Guild operative Seichan try to unravel a set of clues from the Utah disaster in the bowels of the National Archives.  It seems that Thomas Jefferson had a secret purpose behind the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the key to preventing the spread of the problems in Utah lies with the information Meriwether Lewis uncovered on that trip.  The Founding Fathers knew the fledgling Republic had deadly enemies buried so deeply they could not be rooted out.  Are they behind the events taking place now?

One thing I really like about Rollins' books is that besides keeping you up at night to find out what happens next, and how the crew is going to get out of this seemingly impossible to survive situation, I always learn something new that is intriguing.  I almost always go on to explore more about the science or the sites or the history in the plots of his books.  From The Devil Colony I've added Meriwether Lewis and Chief Canasatego of the Iroquois to research some more.  I've also added Sunset Crater National Park in Arizona to my bucket list of places to visit, and regret that I won't be attending my national professional association conference in Salt Lake City this fall.  And what about that Damascus steel?  How did those craftsmen in the Middle Ages produce something so astonishing that still cannot be replicated today?  Hmm..

If you still haven't discovered James Rollins and enjoy intelligent thrillers, this book is a good place to start.  You can always go back and read the previous volumes!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

I probably wouldn't have read this book if my friend hadn't told me she thought I'd enjoy it.  She described it as "sweet".  Well, I did enjoy reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (#105) by Jamie Ford, but I wouldn't call it sweet.  That's too condescending a term for this novel as far as I'm concerned.

The hotel in the title is the Panama Hotel in Seattle (a real place).  It's been boarded up since shortly after WWII when it straddled the edge of  the Chinatown and the Japan Town districts.  When the hotel is bought in the 80s and renovations are begun, the possessions of 37 Japanese families forced into relocation camps were discovered stored in the basement (also a fact).  Henry Lee, who grew up in Chinatown, has just lost his wife of many years after a long battle with cancer.  When he stops by to watch the news conference at the Panama Hotel, he is sure he recognizes the parasol on display as belonging to Keiko Okabe, his best friend during the war years.  The novel weaves together Henry's experiences during those war years when Keiko and Henry were the only non-white students at an exclusive prep school in Seattle, and his father was zealously supporting the Nationalist Chinese cause against the Japanese, and his present day struggles to mend the distant relationship with his own son.  Mix in his black jazz musician friend Sheldon and his brush with fame and fortune, and what happened to the once vibrant Nihonmachi Japanese district of Seattle and you have plenty of material to keep the plot spinning along.  Mr. Ford manages to resolve the plot in a satisfactory way that brings Henry to a new chapter in his life.

Since I grew up in New England, I really didn't know anything about the American concentration camps for those of Japanese ancestry until I was a young adult.  This novel shines a spotlight on racial tensions from a number of different perspectives in a way that is not comfortable for anyone.  But it does give you pause to think, and that's important.  I admired Henry all the more for the way he survived and ultimately thrived.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Mozart Conspiracy

My husband passed along this thriller because he thought I would be intrigued by the premise of questioning Mozart's death.  The Mozart Conspiracy (#104) by Scott Mariani follows "rescue and retrieval" specialist Ben Hope, former British Army Special Forces major as he responds to a desperate phone call from former flame Leigh Llewellyn.  Her brother Oliver died in a tragic accident in Vienna several years ago.  Ben remembers it well as Oliver was his best friend and the last time he saw Leigh was at his funeral.  Now Leigh is being stalked in London.  Is it because Leigh is a renowned opera diva, or could it have something to do with the research Oliver was working on for his book on Mozart's death?  Ben promises to help as they race around Europe barely ahead of their shadowy pursuers.

This is a very high body count thriller - ritual murder, murders arranged to look like suicides or accidents, collateral damage.  You do have suspend disbelief as you're reading because the bad guys really can't be everywhere, can they?  Well yes, in this book they are.  Of course our hero Ben Hope has incredible physical endurance and the skills to help him evade his enemies.  And Leigh is not only an established opera star and former flame, but wealthy and beautiful, too.  (Do any of these heroes ever bother to rescue women who aren't a 20 on the 1 - 10 scale?)  And then there's Ben's nemesis from his SAS days.  He's working for the enemy, but wants to kill Ben - slowly and painfully - just for the fun of it.  I did still keep turning the pages, though!

The book did raise an interesting question, though.  Did Mozart die of natural causes, or was he murdered?  He himself suspected that he was being poisoned and his son later claimed that he was. It could be, and Mr. Mariani states his opinion on the subject in the concluding Author's Note.  The document at the heart of the novel is being hunted because it may provide the proof.

One note of interest after I looked up Scott Mariani.  This is the only book by Mr. Mariani that our library has and I had never heard of him before.  He's really a jack-of-all trades himself before he turned to writing professionally.  You can tell he had confidence in his own talents since the second book he published was How To Write A Thriller!  There are other Ben Hope novels out there and I may just track them down.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

One Dog Night

One Dog Night (#103) by David Rosenfelt is the latest outing in his Andy Carpenter mystery series.  It's all Tara's fault in this case.  Andy thinks Tara, his golden retriever, is better than people.  Considering the kind of people that he runs across in his job as a defense attorney when he's forced to work, he may very well be right.  The last thing he wants is to get involved in defending a man accused in the infamous arson murder of twenty-six people in an apartment house fire six years ago - espcially when the client is convinced of his own guilt.  But Galloway's wife comes to see Andy and reveals that her husband is the one responsible for making sure Andy adopted Tara in the first place and begs Andy to defend him.  At the time of the fire, Noah Galloway was a drug addict, and the apartment house is question was the source of his supply.  Now he's a highly respected fighter in the war against drugs, and about to be appointed to an important White House Commision.  How can Andy not defend someone who was capable of making such a hard choice for Tara's benefit all those years ago?

Once Andy and his team begin to dig deeper, he is convinced that Galloway is innocent and that there is something much, much bigger going on, and that he'd better get to the bottom of things before everyone who knows anything about the case is murdered.

In his usual fashion, Mr. Rosenfelt has constructed a plot full of unexpected twists and turns and filled with quirky characters.  Laurie Collins and Marcus Clark play pivotal roles in investigating the circumstances, but it is really Sam, his accountant and computer whiz, who really comes through for Andy, aided by his cadre of senior citizen computer students.  They're up to any challenge.  Just don't ask them to do it after 9:00 p.m! 

With the case hanging in the balance, the outcome will depend on the courtroom action.  A nail biter right down to the last page - the very best kind of mystery!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Smokin' Seventeen

It's the seventeenth outing for Janet Evanovich's bail bonds agent Stephanie Plum in Smokin' Seventeen (#102).  And she still can't make up her mind between cop Joe Morelli (who can't seem to commit, but who does own Bob, the dog...) and super sexy Ranger (who smells great, always has a car ready for Stephanie, but whose conversation seems to consist mainly of the ever versatile phrase "Babe").  Since Stephanie's mother would like to see grandchildren sometime, she's on a mission to fix up Stephanie with a new prospect - Dave.  Dave was Big Man on Campus in high school, but now has returned from Georgia to live with his parents without a job, a spouse, a house or his dog and with a whiff of corruption from running fraudulent mortage schemes.  But hey, he's presentable and the Plums know his parents, so why not?  Besides the man can cook!

At work, Stephanie's dealing with skips who include a senior citizen vampire and a dancing bear.  Stephanie does seem to have an affinity for animals.  There have been dogs, her hamster, an alligator, and monkeys to name a few.  It's hard to find the office when it keeps moving because it's an RV belonging to the eccentric Mooner.  Can Connie and Lula cope? Oh, and there are the bodies that keep showing up in the currently vacant lot that used to be her cousin Vinny's bail bonds office before it was destroyed in a fire.  No one can make a connection to why they keep showing up there, but Stephanie has at least three people who have her on the top of their "To Kill" list.  How Janet Evanovich rolls up these threats to Stephanie in the climax (!) of this book is a thing of beauty.  I had to bore my husband with the details I got such a kick out of it.  Did I mention that Joe Morelli's Sicilian grandmother and Trenton strega has put the eye on Stephanie?  Evil things keep happening to her that seem to be somehow connected.  It takes Stephanie awhile to figure out the companion curse, the vordo...  And she still hasn't solved the relationship issues... 

There's more promised in the next installment due in November.  Looking forward to the next adventure!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Real Macaw

Meg Langslow is back in the latest installment of Donna Andrews' bird-themed Meg Langslow murder mysteries, The Real Macaw (#101).  As if life isn't complicated enough with twin four month old baby boys, one night Meg is roused from her sleep deprived torpor by a dog barking.  Not her own tiny little monster, but a big dog.  When she goes downstairs to investigate, her newly-decorated living room is overrun with animals; dogs, cats, puppies, kittens, birds, guinea pigs, and hamsters.  Her father, brother, grandfather and other assorted animal lovers have rescued the animals from the county shelter where the formerly "no kill" policy has been changed by the new County Administrator.  Not that Meg is opposed to harboring these animal fugitives from "death row"- far from it; but couldn't the male members of her family have consulted her first, or at the very least put the animals in the barn? 

Turns out things didn't go exactly as planned during the rescue mission, and as her grandfather tries to get hold of their missing driver on the phone, the police chief shows up with Parker Blair's cell phone in hand, barking away.  Blair's been murdered and the chief wants to know why Meg has been calling him.  In this case, the "real macaw" provides a vital clue.  If you saw the gorgeously-imagined movie Rio earlier this year, you won't have any trouble visualizing the bird in question. 

Not only are Meg's home and barn turned upside down, but so are the town itself and the county as the mystery begins to unravel.  Although the killer is caught, things haven't settled down in Caerphilly by a long shot at the end of The Real Macaw.  I expect Ms. Andrews' next Meg Langslow book will dig deeper into the skulduggery afoot, and maybe we'll find out if Meg's upholstered furniture and rugs can be saved, along with the rescued shelter animals.

I do have one bone to pick with Ms. Andrews about this book.  One of the characters is a New Englander whose accent sticks out like a sore thumb in rural Virginia.  Having been born and brought up in the Boston area, I've experienced a lot of that myself as I traveled the country conducting software training.  I could always make a joke of it and then get down to business.  But it does bug me that at one point when Meg is talking with Francine Mann, she asks her if her home was originally near Boston.  The character replies "Worcester".  Meg goes on to assume that's what she meant because it sounded like ""Woosteh" in her accent."  If Meg has lived her entire life in rural Caerphilly, why should she think that her pronunciation of Worcester is correct, and not that of the person who actually grew up there?  In a previous book, Meg takes to task those outsiders who cannot "correctly" pronounce Caerphilly.  Isn't this the pot calling the kettle black?  Nothing is more jarring or hilarious to a native than to hear outsiders butcher local names (for Bostonians that would include Worcester, Gloucester, and Woburn to name a few.  And what about those shows supposedly set in Boston that are fond of including insects - ants -  in their family trees?)  Okay, now that I've gotten that off my chest, bear that in mind when you read this entertaining mystery and if your travel plans include New England assume that "Woosteh" will make you sound more like a native.