The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot is a journalist and biologist who’s been chasing a story for over ten years, from the first time she was sitting in a classroom and heard the word “HeLa” and the name “Henrietta Lacks.” She immediately recognized that there was a story behind these cells- the first immortal cells ever grown in culture- and that she wanted to tell it.

In 1951, a young black woman, a mother of five, died of cervical cancer after months of treatment. Her name was Henrietta Lacks. When she began her radium treatment (several very graphic descriptions of how they treated cancer in the 50’s, ewww) the doctor who was treating her took, without her permission, a sample of her tumor. He sent these cells to a lab where a particular scientist, George Gey, was trying to grow immortal cells- cells that would never die, just continue dividing forever, and could be used to study everything. So far he’d been met with only failure, and the lab didn’t actually have high hopes for Henrietta’s cells, but then they grew. They kept growing and never died. The scientists labeled the sample ‘HeLa,’ for the first two letters in each of Henrietta’s names. Now scientists had an inexhaustible source of human cells.

The news, when first published, was very sensational. Journalists and pop magazines took the story and blew it up. Scientists began promising that they would soon find the key to real human immortality- but of course, they never did. The did, however, begin to find new treatments for existing diseases, particularly putting an enormous dent in the overall fatality of a cancer diagnoses. They were also able to begin creating vaccines for previously deadly afflictions, such as polio. Virtually all of the advancements science has made in the past fifty years have been somehow touched by HeLa.

That’s the very surface of the science behind this story, but Rebecca wasn’t interested in just the science. She wanted to know about the unwitting ‘donor’ of the cells, Henrietta. What was her story? As it turned out, there were people around who knew Henrietta, but these people were very few, far between, and reluctant to talk. Somehow, Rebecca had to get close to Rebecca’s children and grandchildren, and earn their trust. They felt cheated by previous reporters and lawyers, and Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Henrietta went for treatment and everything started. Today, there a millions of dollars around the world wrapped up in HeLa production and distribution, and Henrietta’s children have never seen a cent of it. Most of the time they’re forced to go without health insurance.

On top of immediate family, Rebecca talked to other people who had lived near Henrietta growing up, doctors who treated her illness, scientists who’d worked with her cells, and new, young innovators who are to this day using HeLa to make even more unheard of advances in health and technology.

Eventually, Rebecca did get close to the family- particularly Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, who was only two when her mother died. One of my problems when reading the book (and I do feel a bit insensitive to mention this) is that the only relate-able character is Rebecca. Henrietta, her children, all her cousins, live in a world about as far from modern day Maine as the plantations in 1860. None of them are educated beyond highschool. They’re marrying their cousins. They are deeply religious (this is of course something that millions around the world can relate to, but it was another difference for me). Even when they found out about the HeLa cells (which was over twenty years after Henrietta died), they had basically no idea what it meant. They hardly know what cells are.

Granted, Deborah spent a great amount of time trying to educate herself on the matter, but by the writing of the book she was in her 60s and it was almost impossible for her to understand- when she heard about cloning HeLa, she imagined copies of her mother walking around. When she read that HeLa was being used to test cancer drugs, nuclear weapons, and how human cells survive in space, she imagined all these things happening to her mother. So, I found it very difficult to relate to Deborah, and her ignorant enthusiasm got a little tedious by the conclusion of the book.

Now I must say, this was an utterly fantastic book. It was very science-y, which is not my thing, but it was very interesting. As many have said of the HeLa stories over the years, it’s the perfect mix of science and human interest. I was particularly interested in the story of Henrietta’s older daughter, Elsie, who was epileptic and labeled “simple,” sent to live at The Hospital for the Negro Insane when she was ten, and died there at age fifteen. Forty years later, Deborah and Rebecca are able to visit the hospital and dig up her records. They find out exactly what had probably happened to her; it was disturbing and deeply upsetting for Deborah- horribly fascinating.

In this video, Rebecca Skloot talks about how she came to be writing the book and how people generally receive the story of Henrietta. It’s very interesting to watch.

Published in: on November 10, 2011 at 2:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy

We’re all familiar with the fairytale- the farmer’s new wife doesn’t like his children, so she sends them off into the forest with a loaf of bread until they come across a house of candy wherein resides a witch who resolves to put them in her oven and cook them for dinner. This novel, set in Poland 1941-1944, takes this skeleton of a tale and fleshes it out with starvation, war, hunger, and pain.

In the book, Hansel and Gretel are the fake German names of the two Jewish children who, with their father and stepmother (the Mechanik and the Stepmother), have just fled their ghetto in Bialystok and need to find a new place to go. Knowing the dangers of traveling with children, the adults send Hansel and Gretel into the woods with no food except for Hansel’s last slice of bread, which he breaks into crumbs to leave a trail behind them. The children wander in the woods for days before coming upon a little hut (built entirely of wood, not candy) owned by and old woman named Magda- the village witch. Somehow, the children charm Magda into feeding and housing them, and the witch invents and elaborate tale about being their great-aunt to get them ration cards.

Meanwhile, the Mechanik and the Stepmother happen across a group of partisans led by a mysterious fighter known as the Russian. The two prove themselves worthy, and are welcomed into the gang, where they sneak through the woods for months, fighting the Nazis as covertly as possible.

This novel, similar to The Book Thief, takes a very human look at WWII-era Poland, featuring as it’s main cast two hiding Jewish children, an old Gypsy and all her Gypsy family, and a Nazi who’s basically fed up with the war. Realistically, Major Frankel knows that Russia is moving strongly against them and that, rather than take residence in tiny little nothing villages in Poland, the German force should be drawing a line and securing it against the invasion. Despite being a Nazi, the Major is an endlessly sympathetic character- he sort of draws the line between killing people because they’re Jews, or Poles, and killing children who haven’t done anything wrong. It’s very interesting to read his chapters, and then return to Magda who has no nice words to say about the Germans- they are sharks and they will rip you to shreds. Of course, that’s understandable.

At 300 pages, with abnormally tiny text, the book isn’t a quick read, but it is worth the time. I was happy to pick it up in my spare five minutes, and never found it uninteresting. It’s a heavy novel, and for people who are sensitive to Holocaust-related media, this is definitely not for you. But if you can stomach a little human evil enough to see all the human good sprouting around it, this was a fantastic read.

Published in: on September 30, 2011 at 12:53 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

On the day Willie Upton returns to her childhood home of Templeton, New York, the monster of Glimmerglass Lake dies. Willie (short for Wilhelmina) is home at the end of an affair with her professor from Stanford, which ended abruptly when his wife confronted them. Now she’s home, to the surprise of her disappointed mother, who returned home, pregnant, at eighteen when she learned that her parents had died in a tragic car accident.

Vivienne Upton was perfectly happy living life high as a kite, loving love and burning her bras until she received a notice of her parents’ deaths and returns home- pregnant. She’s always told her daughter, Willie, that the father was just some random hippy from some random orgy or something. Now that Willie is home with problems of her own, however, Vi decides to tell her the truth- her father is not one lucky hippy, but a man from Templeton who claims to have some bloodline connection to Marmaduke Temple, the founder of Templeton five generations back, from whom Vi and Willie are immediately descended.

It’s a lot to take in. Willie is outraged that her mother has kept this secret from her for so long, and now determines to discover who her father is while also trying to solve her own problems and keep a friend afloat.

The book was fantastic. It completely held my interest, the writing was glorious- there are authors every once in a while who just have such a command of language that I want to bow at their feet- the characters were sympathetic, every one of them. Every other chapter was narrated by an ancestor of Willie’s as she researched and discovered their story. Meanwhile, the book is sprinkled with photos, etchings, and prints of Willie’s relatives and constantly revised family trees filling in the generations she hadn’t really understood.

Meanwhile, in the background (subtle and unobtrusive), there are scientists and tourists in Templeton trying to figure out where exactly this bizarre lakemonster came from. Affectionately named Glimmey, the monster is a creature that most Templetonians knew was there, without having any conclusive evidence. I thought it was very clever how the historical characters, every once in a while, would mention the monster. Finally, the creature has died. At the end of the book, all the threads are tied very skillfully together. The ending is hopeful.

I’m already halfway through my next book- I can hardly put it down. I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

(Also, I’m adding this one to my list.)

Published in: on September 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wings of Dawn by Sigmund Brouwer

I think it’s because I now work so much that it’s been taking me so long to finish books.

Wings of Dawn is about a young boy named Thomas who grew up in a monastery in small part of England. Until he was eleven, he was looked after and taught endlessly by his loving nurse, Sarah, who gives him knowledge of science, history, anatomy, and language. Thomas is taught to read and learns that books are the greatest treasure in the world. As he grows, however, he is also taught that all of this knowledge is for a purpose: one day, he will have to go to a kingdom called Magnus and conquer it from it’s reigning lords- who killed Sarah’s parents, the previous rulers of Magnus.

When Thomas is eleven, Sarah dies, and he is left to his own devices in that little monastery with three corrupt monks his only companions. Finally, when he is fourteen, he decides that he’s ready, but he can’t go alone. Though Magnus is a great walled fortress, impossible to win with an army of the king’s best men, Sarah has told Thomas that he can take it with only one knight. He finds this knight on the gallows, about to be hanged for thievery alongside a grimy little pickpocket and a mysterious deaf and mute girl. Using a magnificent trick, Thomas frees the knight and is about to be on his way when a strange old man tells him to take the other two as well, for they will ensure him safe passage into Magnus.

I have a history with this book. I first picked it up to read in sixth grade- it’s a YA novel, according to placement in the library, but I can’t imagine any person younger than fifteen being able to read and fully understand everything that happens on these pages. Regardless, I borrowed again a year later- I was twelve or thirteen- and finished it, and passed it on to my brother and sister. But we’re all quite precocious.

This is the sort of book I don’t expect to like. I think my initial attraction to it was a visual thing- it’s a very thick book in tones of dark blue and purple, and always stood out amongst the other, more reasonable-looking YA books. Kings, spies, knights in shining armor- they’re not really my thing. Yet at the tender age of twelve-or-thirteen, I read all 432 pages of this book and have never really forgotten it.

It’s also one of those annoying books where you know way more than any of the characters- thanks to third person omnicience- you know exactly where everyone stands while for 400 pages everyone is going, “WHERE DOES HE STAND?!” and it’s frustrating but also fantastic. The book is obscure- Winthrop is the only library in Maine that has it- but wonderful.

Published in: on August 24, 2011 at 11:21 am  Comments (1)  
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Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

This has been a big week for me: landed a second job and got my driver’s permit. Here’s hoping I warm up to driving, because it would be kind of terrible to hate something that I’ll undoubtedly have to do quite a lot of in my life. I care more about having the job, anyway.

So, for those interested, in the Winthrop area, I’m now a waitress at Tubby’s, and you should all come and see me. I enjoy this job much more than housekeeping (I’m not giving that job up, by the way- I’m keeping them both). Even if I hated the activity of waitressing (which I don’t), this job is still preferable because there are people around me. And, of those I’ve met so far, every one of my coworkers is very cool.

That’s all.

Oh my god. I was completely rational about writing this review up until the last fifty or so pages of the book, which came completely out of nowhere and blew me so far away that I can’t even think right now. Geeze. Deep breaths, okay.

Everything is Illuminated is a very strange book by Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about a young man (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) who’s recently been given a photograph of his grandfather, standing with a woman named Augustine, who reportedly saved him from the Nazi’s during WWII. This took place in Ukraine, in a small nothing town known as Trachimbrod or Sofiowka. Sixty years later, Jonathan returns to Ukraine to try and find Augustine and Trachimbrod.

To help him on his quest is Alex, another young man from Ukraine who speaks a stilted sort of intelligible English, and will act as his translator. They’re accompanied by Alex’s grandfather (also Alex), who will act as their driver, and Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, Alex Sr.’s “seeing-eye bitch.” Go ahead and work that one out.

The story is told in three styles. The current action- the story of Jonathan searching for Augustine in the present day- is narrated by Alex, who is writing it as a book. This is portrayed in Alex’s excessively formal English, which was jarring at first. You get used to it quickly.

The second part is the story of Trachimbrod in the 1780’s-90’s, beginning on the day Trachim B’s wagon went into the Brod River- Trachim’s body was never recovered, but he became a legend to the village and they would celebrate him every year on Trachimday. Somehow from the wreckage, a baby was found- a young girl, eventually adopted by the “disgraced usurer Yankel D” and named Brod. This is the book Jonathan is writing.

The third part of the story is told through letters that Alex writes to Jonathan, after he has returned to America and they are both writing their books. Presumably, Jonathan is writing back to Alex, but we never see his letters. Alex tells Jonathan about his family- his brother Little Igor, whom he thinks the world of; his grandfather, who has become obsessed with Augustine; his father, who is strict and cold; and his mother, whom he only wants to be close to. Meanwhile, Alex comments on Jonathan’s story- paralleling, in many places, exactly what the reader is thinking of the action.

This is just a curiosity- but I felt, very sincerely, that this story took place in the exact same universe as The History of Love. I’m not sure how to explain this, except that I felt certain that while Jonathan and Alex were hunting down Augustine, Leo Gursky was biding his time in New York, watching his son from afar. I’ve never had this feeling with a book before. It’s odd, but I’ve never come across another novelist who writes like Nicole Krauss, except Jonathan Safran Foer- in my head, they automatically click (it’s only one of life’s perfect ironies that they’re actually married).

So this book is odd, but it was also incredibly gripping. I enjoyed reading it- though there were a few moments around 180 pages in that it slowed down a bit, it only became that much more amazing when he revealed the truth of everything. All I could think was that this was one of the most mind-bending, unbelievable, powerful things I had ever reader. I was in awe of was JSF did with the ending. I spent the last fifty pages or so just trying to breathe evenly around my accelerated heartbeat (though there easily could have been, there were no liquid tears).

As far as JSF goes, I thought that this book was much better than his other (which I liked quite a lot, so). If you have even the slightest amount of time, read this book. I’m going to add this to my rec list and buy a copy for myself, that’s how highly I thought of this book. That’s all I can say.

There’s been a movie made, starring Elijah Wood. I watched the trailer, and to be honest, the tone of the movie looks very different from the tone of the book. The movie looks much more fun- odd in a Sunshine Cleaning, Little Miss Sunshine kind of way. I have to say that I’m not sure I would watch it in conjunction with the book, but as a movie it looks interesting. Here’s the trailer, if you like:

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

When I heard about this book, I wanted to read it immediately. Which meant getting to the library as soon as possible, of course (any excuse, right?).

This novel, which bridges something between fantasy and sci-fi, is about a teenager named Jacob who, as he grew up, was always being told these magnificent stories by his grandfather, about his life in a children’s home in Wales during World War II. The way Abe tells it, however, this wasn’t a home for any ordinary children- all of the kids who lived here were peculiar. They had eerie gifts and fascinating powers- one girl would float away if nothing anchored her to the ground; a boy had bees living inside of him, and when he opened his mouth a few would fly out; there was an invisible boy; a girl who could make things grow, like wild, and one with a mouth on the back of her head; and even more. To back up his exotic claims, Abe had a handful of creepy vintage photos of the children.

As Jacob grew up, he began to doubt his grandfather’s stories. But by the time he was sixteen, Abe was very nearly senile, and his stories were horrifyingly real to him. Particularly the part about the monsters who were after the kids, from whom he had been fleeing his entire life. Suddenly, Abe is killed under very mysterious, traumatizing circumstances, and Jacob is the one to find him. As he breathes his last breaths, he urges his grandson to visit the home where he grew up, and there he would find answers. Before Jacob leaves the scene, though, he sees something in the trees he can’t believe- the very monster his crazy grandpa has been describing since he was a boy.

People may think he’s crazy- he may think he’s a little crazy himself- but Jacob does as his grandfather asks. Accompanied by his father, he travels to Cairnholm, Wales, a tiny little nothing village. On the far side of the island, where the residents never venture, are the overgrown ruins of the children’s home. The house is nightmarish, but Jacob is determined.

Accompanying the story are a collection of photographs- every time a photograph was described in the book, it would be presented so that you could see exactly what they were talking about. That’s one of the details that really drew me to the book. The faces in the photos are unsmiling, absurd, and they will swim before your eyes as you try to fall asleep. Roughly the first third of this book left me feeling more uneasy than any Stephen King novel ever has.

Once the really creepy beginning is resolved, the book becomes an adventure fantasy tale. These aren’t usually my cup of tea, but I’ve found that when they’re executed well (The Hunger Games, Brighid’s Quest, etc.) they can be some of the most enjoyable books to read. This is, at least a bit, why I was able to finish it in a day. I’m not one who can sit down with a book and finish it in one sitting, but this one had me latched on well into the night.

A few days ago, my sisters and I went to Barnes & Noble, and my twin was after a book that would hook her, that she would be able to finish. She’s been in a rut for about a month now and hasn’t been able to finish a single book, so I suggested this one. She was hooked and she bought it, and when I spoke to her yesterday she said that yes, she had already finished it, had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning reading it, and had begun and completed Stephen King’s Carrie in the meantime. She’s probably a faster reader than I am, but I think it’s safe to say that she’s out of her rut.

(This next paragraph could possibly be considered a spoiler, maybe.)
Now, I have to say that the inside-cover summary of this book is misleading. This is likely why the story wasn’t exactly what I had expected it to be. The dustjacket makes it sound like there’s something sinister about the children themselves. The truth is that the children are just children- albeit peculiar children with very strange abilities, just children. Good children. Children who are on Jacob’s side (except, possibly, for Enoch, but for now he’s good). There are dark creatures lurking in the shadows, going after the children. Once the children become characters, rather than these creepy, powerful, eerie faces from the photographs, the book becomes a lot less creepy.

(No more spoilers, yay!)

So it wasn’t quite as thrilling as I had hoped. Nevertheless, it was a good read and intensely interesting, and I would recommend it to anyone who can handle a little spook.

As I was searching on the internet a moment ago, I happened upon this magnificent thing. It’s a trailer for the book; did you know books had trailers? I didn’t, but this one is fantastic. I think this would make a wonderful movie, in the future. In fact, the book was only released earlier this month, so a movie is rather distant. But just think of the possibilities.

Peony in Love by Lisa See

The only thing worth note right now is that I’m approximately two weeks away from being completely finished with school.

(If anyone is interested in hiring an intelligent, dedicated highschool grad looking to save money for college, now is your chance.)

I surprised myself when I suddenly decided that I absolutely had to read this book right now. I was doing history homework, you see, and being completely irritated and bored out of my mind, stuck in that space where I’m demanding to know what purpose this information will have for me (really, we’re talking US tariffs in the 1930’s, a time when tariffs changed every other week, and I had to read about every single one). I started considering how many better ways there are to learn history. Then I thought of the other two books I’ve read by Lisa See, who writes fascinating novels about women growing up during different periods in China’s history. This one is told from the point of view of young Peony, and takes place between the years 1660 and 1694, approximately.

At sixteen, Peony is the beautiful daughter of the wealthy Chen family. She is to be married away in only five months. The book begins on the first day of the Double Seven festival- the seventh day of the seventh month, which also happens to be Peony’s birthday. Festivals are, for the most part, happy times of celebration, but this year the Chen family has arranged something special: a private performance of her favorite opera, The Peony Pavilion. Because it’s improper for unmarried young women to be seen or be in the company of men, the women watch the opera from behind a screen. Party way through the performance, she begins to feel overwhelmed, and leaves her family behind to take a walk and get some air.

On her excursion, Peony runs into a mysterious young man, and even though she is a very loyal daughter, she can’t help but be entranced by the charming poet. They meet again, on each night of the Double Seven festival, and then part ways.

While I do love Lisa See for her fantastically informative writing, her books are a little heavy. This one, at 275 pages, took my nine days to read. It’s difficult to explain exactly what’s up, though. It’s not a lack of interest, or that it’s difficult, it just takes forever. It’s the exact opposite of a quick read.

This book was probably my least favorite of the three I’ve read, but you see, it’s very hard to explain why without revealing a very major plot point. Even the summary given on the book can’t explain the book; it sounds like some mystical journey through hell, with demons and sword fighting. In reality, it is a very deep book about a very tragic love. It is powerfully feminine (and feminist). It was magical and scary and fantastic. It was a very good books, because being the least of three, behind two exceptional books, is not the worst thing I could say about a book on my site.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to Lisa See is that her books are as much about the Chinese culture as they are about the events through which the characters pace. Of course, footbinding gets a brief highlight- am I the only one fascinated by this?- but what really plays a lead part in this one are the marriage and funeral rituals. The ancient Chinese beliefs in the afterworld are played straight. It’s all very, very different from how we are now, and I can’t get enough of that.

Here’s something fun that happened the other day. I was watching the movie Mulan with my little sister (she’s nine and she’s never seen it; it was my duty as her role model to right this wrong), and suddenly I ticked and went, “Why aren’t Mulan’s feet bound?” I mean, Mulan was clearly from a wealthy family. Her father was an important man. Suddenly it all seemed improbably to me. And I thought that the story was based on a real woman, too, so I was wondering how all of this was accomplished. Today, I did the research. The answer to this conundrum is actually very simple.

The Mulan legend (only a legend, I’m afraid) first surfaced around the year 400 AD. Chinese women did not start practicing the art of footbinding until 900 AD. So Mulan wouldn’t have had bound feet. For more information on Mulan, go here. For more information on footbinding, read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See. Or, if you’re pressed for time and you really need to know about body mutilation right now, go here. You should still read Snow Flower, though.

Published in: on May 26, 2011 at 9:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

I don’t even know where to start except, hey, who loves grandparents? Grandparents are amazing. Let’s just all agree on that statement, okay? Grandparents are amazing. They deserve love and hugs and ladybugs.

The past few days have been fuzzy for me and I really don’t remember what I’ve done. Yesterday was cake day and yes, it was fun, frustrating, there was yelling and three runs to the store- that’s how cake day goes. This week was twelve inches, red velvet with buttercream frosting. I fed nine people with it, and half of it was left. I need more people to feed cake to. Really.

Today, thoroughly annoyed at how long this book was taking me, I sat down and very steadfastly read the last sixty pages.

This one is yet another memoir about a woman, Deborah Rodriguez, who traveled to Afghanistan with a non-government organization (NGO) that was going to build a clinic to improve the quality of life of the Afghanis. That would have been all well and good, if Debbie had had any practical skills that made her helpful in the effort of building and maintaining a clinic- but she was a hairdresser. Surrounded by doctors and dentists and surgeons, she was a hairdresser, chosen for some reason to go on a mission Afghanistan. Still wanting to help, she decides to offer what assistance she can by giving haircuts and manicures to NGO missionaries.

That’s only the beginning of the story. Debbie becomes friendly with many Afghanis in her first few months in the country, and she realizes how stacked the gender powers are here. Men have all the power, and women, practically none. She decides she has to do something to enable the women in the country, to help them get jobs and earn money for their family’s, to empower them and make them strong. She opens a beauty school to teach the Afghan women how to do hair and makeup and run their own salons.

Still it’s not that easy. Debbie is a foreigner, a Westerner, at least partially exempt from the strict gender guidelines followed in Afghanistan. In this country, women are dogs or slaves who are sold into marriages with wealthy men who could be loving, but are more often cruel and violent. They must get permission from their husbands to attend Debbie’s beauty school, by convincing their husbands that they can earn money for the family.

Oftentimes, they can. Vanity is a big deal in Afghanistan, despite the fact that women are required to cover most of their skin all of the time. Afghani makeup is loud, gaudy, and colorful compared to the typical American “au natural” look. Afghani brides in particular need to be very, very bedazzled for their engagement parties, which are celebrated prior to the wedding.

This is the kind of book that I find really fascinating because it explores a culture about which I know absolutely nothing. As usual with these sorts of things, it didn’t take me long to realize that we here in America have it nice. We’re allowed ample self-pampering and vanity, and we dress to impress and appeal sexy. We get to date whom we’re interested in, and decide whom we want to marry. If our partner is cruel to us, we can leave them. These are all privileges that Afghani women don’t have.

I always find myself a little surprised when I read a memoir, particularly when I didn’t know it was a memoir until I was fifty pages in. I have nothing against memoirs; they’re just as exciting as novels. It’s like what they say on The Moth when they’re signing off (does anyone listen to The Moth? It’s great, I love it, google it), “Thank you for listening, and we hope you have a story-worthy week.” Memoirs are about story-worthy weeks, or months, or in this case, years. When you’re living the novel, you get to turn it into a memoir.

Personally, I feel like I’m living a chick flick with this weekly cake thing. You know the one, where the woman gets commissioned to bake a cake and she doesn’t know how (check) so she decides that the only way she’s going to learn is to bake one every weekend (check), so that she can practice all of the sizing, get the baking times, the batter amounts, and learn the tips before the big day (check), but she now has a whole bunch of cake that she needs to feed to people (check) so she starts inviting a gazillion people over to her house every weekend (check) including people she doesn’t know very well (check). Soon, somehow, the man of her dreams hears about it and shows up to eat her cake, and they have a gorgeous chick-flick ending (uncheck).

This would be made even better if she was new to her town and didn’t know anyone, so she establishes a cast of friends by inviting them all over for cake.

Next in line is a foodie book. No wait, actually, I’m currently reading something very short that my sister gave me. I’ll include it in the foodie review post. Tonight, though, I’m going to relax, drink my cocoa, and watch some Criminal Minds. Or a chick flick.

Published in: on April 17, 2011 at 10:14 pm  Comments (4)  
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Four Graphic Novels

As eventful goes, this week isn’t winning any prizes. I’ve been enjoying myself, sure, with books and movies and no extraordinary amount of homework. Well, no more than the usual, anyway. This week I had a craving for some graphic novels this week- something short and sweet, with great artwork… I had one in mind, which I had seen in my school library, and when I went there to check it out I snatched another couple, then one came in at the local library for me, and that was yesterday, and now I’ve read them all and am ready to share. Graphic novels are quite quick, you see.

When I showed these books to people (with quite a bit of enthusiasm) I got a pretty universal, “Really? I didn’t know you were into graphic novels.” I don’t read them often, but as I said, this time I was hit with a craving. It was the artwork that I wanted, mostly, and that’s another thing about graphic novels; when I pick one, I do so by opening it and flipping the pages. Reading the summary comes afterward, and sometimes I’ll wake away with a few and then realize that I don’t actually know what they’re about. Such was the case with all three of the books I got from school (patience, I’m getting there). With graphic novels, the illustrations are intended to tell the story in at least equal parts as the words. It was probably Hugo Cabret that put me in the mood for visual novels. Which is actually what this first one prefers to be called.

The Three Incestuous Sisters is a visual novel by Audrey Niffeneger, who wrote The Night Bookmobile, which I reviewed a few weeks ago and greatly enjoyed. This one is sort of like a storybook, and I literally read the entire thing in the car on the way home from the library. It’s about three sisters who live together in a lighthouse until the old lighthouse keeper dies, and then his son comes to take over his job. The son falls in love with one of the sisters and gets her pregnant, while the other sisters are dealing with…. jealousy and magic, respectively. It was a very odd story.

The way I described this book to the librarian when I returned it was, “very, very, very Edward Gorey.” Reading this book was basically an identical experience to reading Gorey. It was in parts repulsing, fascinating, stunning, shocking, frightening… I actually couldn’t believe what was happening at certain points. I sat their going, “Whose…. whose brainchild is this fantastic work of whatisit?” It was completely mystifying.

At the end of the book, she included an “Afterward” that explained her creative process. Audrey Niffeneger is most well-known, probably, for her Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, but she was an artist first. She spent fourteen years writing, drawing, and creating this book, and did The Night Bookmobile during that time, and I wish I had it on me so I could describe how she actually created the artwork, but it was pretty esoteric. And again, really interesting.

Has anyone here ever actually read an Edward Gorey cartoon? You know how the picture tells the story, with only two or three words, or maybe a sentence to carry the plot? “Her life continued to be quite tedious.” That’s from The Gilded Bat, which I think is my favorite Gorey cartoon from the two books of Gorey cartoons we own. I recommend giving it a shot if you never have- it will definitely broaden your horizons.

This one (I didn’t realize when I picked it up) is actually a true story about a group of Hurricane Katrina survivors who each reacted very differently to the storm. One woman refused to leave her apartment, and ended up going to the hospital later as a refugee. Two storeowners wouldn’t leave their supermarket, to discourage looters. A doctor lived in a house that was over two hundred years old, and he was so confident in it’s ability to weather the storm that he hosted a party there. A married couple leave the city early and go to stay with friends in Houston. A college senior and his family go to stay with his brother in Tallahassee.

This one was shocking and… saddening. I felt somehow naive after reading it; granted, I was only…. eleven? when the hurricane hit New Orleans, and we spent maybe a month in school studying current events and they kept us up on the news, but then it kind of… went away. That’s how things work when you live on the east coast and nothing ever happens to you. Tragedy just sort of…. goes away. It’s not effecting us. It’s terrible, but I was only eleven, and I admit that I’m guilty of not exactly keeping up with the current events now…. Anyway, in this book you see what the hurricane was like, up-close and personal. The characters aren’t just based on real people, they are real people. Denise, Kwame, Doctor Brobson, Leo and Michelle were all real people who told the Josh Neufeld their stories.

You know, I do live on the east coast. It’s not unthinkable (particularly after Katrina) that we might experience some devastating hurricane that puts the entire city out of commission- or more like the entire central part of the state, since my city is only 6,000 people, as opposed to the 200,000 of New Orleans at the time… And now I know, from the personal stories, exactly what it’s like being a refugee in a time like that, and it’s completely horrifying. I can’t imagine it. It’s…. it happens to someone else, you know? That’s how Americans view tragedy. We feel immortal. Even I do.

Garage Band is an Italian graphic novel by the artist Gipi. (Fun fact: if you google “garage band” it will put a squiggly red line under it and suggest “garageband,” the software. I was shocked.) This is one that I’ve had my eyes on for a while because of the really very lovely artwork- watercolor with thin, black linework. I’d actually checked it out once before, but I gave it to my art teacher when I became interested in watercolor, just to show her. This is the first time I’ve actually read the story. It’s about five friends who, well, start a band in their garage. Each of the boys has a thing that makes them more intriguing and defines their character. Then something bad happens and they need to make up for it, and they get themselves in some pretty deep trouble. Meanwhile, one of the boys’ fathers has found a client who owns a music production company (or something) and is willing to listen to them play. They might have a manager. It’s very exciting.

This book was simple. I really liked it for the artwork more than anything. The watercolor is washy and edgy and dark, but it’s bright where there are colors. The character designs are kind of gritty- each design fits the character in an uncanny way that I really liked. There were parts where you could tell that Gipi had put a black line over wet paint, and the line became fuzzy… I enjoy little details like that.

I really, really loved this book.

I Kill Giants is about a young girl named Barbra Thorson who, she says, kills giants. Barbra believes that someday soon an angry, violent giant will show up and will need to be killed, and she is the only one who can do it- with the aid of her magic hammer, Coveleski. Naturally, Barbra’s peers don’t react very kindly to her strangeness, and she particularly attracts the attention of the older Taylor, a rather vicious brand of bully. You start to realize that things aren’t entirely sitting right with Barbra- that something is up with their strange little family unit.

In the nature of all really fantastic books, I can’t explain why I loved this one so much. I clicked with Barbra, though- she was thorny and bold, cute and strange. Her emotions hit me strongly- I was offended when she was, hurt when she was, apologetic and horrified. She was very real, and soon it became apparent that she was just a fascinating kid who had no clue how to deal with a very unusual situation. She wasn’t getting any help, either- people tried, but with Barbra, it’s like you have no idea where to start. People would invariably say the wrong thing. It was very difficult.

At the same time, you see how she interacts with her friends- a gentle girl named Sophia, and also the school psychologist, Mrs. Molle- and realize that she could be a normal child, probably even a sweet one, but things haven’t worked out that way for her.

After I finished this one, I gave it to my sister to read. I expect her to review it soon as well. I just talked to her on the phone about it, and she said she liked it a lot. I look forward to seeing what she has to say. I’ll also be adding this book to my rec list. Yeah, it actually was that good. Go read it. I know some of you could finish a book like this in ten minutes.

So, that’s it for the week of Graphic Novels, I guess. I’ve got something from my school library which the teacher more-or-less shoved in my hands as I was leaving. I have a lot of homework I could be worrying about, but I’ve also got a camcorder waiting for me in a box seventeen miles from here, and I need to get someone to drive me over there to pick it up. Don’t worry, I’m sure it won’t be long before you hear from me again!

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Happy April Fool’s day! I’m not really into trickery myself, and today that works out because I have no one to trick. We’re snowed in today. It’s kind of unbelievable, because this week has given us some really nice weather. It’s been warm! But as I look out the window now, there is a heavy blanket of snow growing on the ground, falling since before I woke up. I’ve heard eight to twelve inches.

Needless to say, snow day means reading! Yesterday I spent all of my free time doing all of my homework just so I would be able to enjoy this weekend without worrying about my scholarly obligations. I wanted to be able to read and watch movies and cook and enjoy my leisure time, thank you.

I’ve been interested in reading this book for a few months now because the media intrigued me. This is a story told in words and pictures. I’ve been putting it aside, though, even though I could see it would be quick, until I was at the library with my little sister and she wanted to get it. Since she’s already in the middle of a book (she’s reading The Phantom Tollbooth, which I could never finish, but she’s enjoying it), I took it to read through first. It’s a huge book- 526 pages, and the paper is unusually heavy- but it is a quick read.

I think this book could affectionately be called YA. The story isn’t complicated, and the backstory can be explained in a few paragraphs. The main character is twelve year-old Hugo Cabret, and orphan timekeeper living undetected in a Parisian trainstation. He was an apprentice timekeeper, under his uncle, until his uncle mysteriously disappeared several months ago. Now, living in the walls, Hugo keeps the clocks going so he isn’t found and sent to an orphanage.

He has more important things to worry about, though. Hugo’s father died in a museum fire before the events of the story, and he left Hugo with an automaton- a mechanical man- that he had been carefully restoring to working order. The automaton appears to be able to write, if only he could get it functioning. Using his father’s notebooks, Hugo continues his work, trying to repair the machine that, he imagines, will give him a message from his father.

Nothing is that easy, though- Hugo has to steal mechanical toys, whose parts he takes and uses to fix the man. Then one day, the old man who owns the toybooth catches him, takes his notebook, and tells him that he will burn it.

Along the way, Hugo meets an eccentric young girl named Isabelle, who seems to want to help him.

The story is, like I said, not complicated, but it’s interesting enough to keep you going for the few hours it takes to read. There are a lot of epiphany moments (Hugo needs an adult to enter the library? Cue older friend. The automaton needs an oddly-shaped key to start? Isabelle’s been wearing it around her neck this entire time) which I always think of as a poor substitute for cleverness, a lot of the action is told sparsely, and characterization is kind of lacking. It’s not completely absent, but it could be stronger.

The illustrations, though, are magnificent. They honestly tell the story just as much as the words do (actually, there are more pages of drawings than of words). They’re gorgeous full-page spreads in pencil on watercolor paper. Well, originally on watercolor paper. According to the information thing at the back.

Some of the pages also had photos and stills from old films. It was a very graphic experience. Filmmaking was also a very important element to the story, so there is a lot of that.

All in all, it was a very graphic and unusual reading experience. Even though the writing wasn’t as spectacular spectacular as it could have been, I enjoyed it. I was fond of the characters, and the ending was good. It was appropriately quick, too.

I’m a little bit worried that I won’t be able to make it to the library earlier than next Tuesday. Of course I have books in my pile, but I ordered a few books to come in and I’m rather eager to read them. I wonder if librarians get weather days? Is the library even open today? I could call and find out. Or I could just start a new book or watch a movie.

I enjoy snow days.

Published in: on April 1, 2011 at 2:53 pm  Comments (5)  
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