Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

When "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" was released, the author Rebecca Skloot was interviewed on every NPR program except Car Talk. The book sounded fairly interesting, and I put it on my mental list of books to look for at the library. The next week, I noticed that the book was on the bestseller list. This surprised me, because I didn't think even NPR had that many listeners interested in cell biology. THEN I saw the book at Costco, nestled in between the Jodi Picault weepers and the cookbooks. If a book about cell biology was a best seller AND was sold at the store where I buy 36 rolls of toilet paper, it had to be a heck of a book.

It is a heck of a book. It's a book about Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. It's about her cells, which have been grown in laboratories all over the world and used in scientific research for decades. It's about the ethics and legality of using human cells, sometimes obtained without knowledge or consent. It's about the contrast between poor, uneducated patients and the doctors and scientists who work with them. It's about Henrietta's children, and how their mother's early death affected them, and how they have dealt with her cellular immortality. And it's about how Ms. Skloot became fascinated with this subject and spent years getting to know the Lacks family so she could write the full story.

I really enjoyed this book. Despite the serious subject matter, it was an entertaining book to read by the pool in Florida. Part of the book profits will go to a scholarship fund for the Lacks family, so I'm even glad that I tossed a copy in my Costco cart instead of getting it from the library. A year or two from now, when I've finally used the last of those 36 rolls of TP, I'll still remember this book.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Another Great Stunt Memoir -- And One I Forgot

I read "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University" by Kevin Roose in one day. I opened my Amazon box in the afternoon, read it while cooking dinner (sorry if it tasted weird, kids), read it while eating dinner (I'll hear about your day some other day, kids), and finished it up while brushing my teeth. I did take a break to put the kids to bed, or they would also have been up until 10:30 and that would not be good. Honestly, that's a little late for me now that I'm almost middle-aged. But it was worth it.
Kevin Roose was a student at Brown University when he decided to take a semester off and study a different culture. Instead of heading for Europe and studying abroad, he found a place much more foreign -- Liberty University, the conservative Baptist college founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell. After learning a few worship songs and watching Veggietales videos, and slapping a Jesus fish on the back of his car, Roose goes undercover as a transfer student at Liberty.
Roose finds his experience confusing and fascinating. The rules are strict, the tests are difficult, and some of the classes (like the one about Creation science) are just weird. The students are both very different from his classmates at Brown (lots of praying together) and very similar (lots of talking about girls).
If you are not an Evangelical Christian, this book give you a very interesting peek at that world. If you are an Evangelical Christian, I think you might still like this book. As a liberal Quaker, Roose is horrified by the casual homosexual slurs and the biblical literalism, but he also recognizes many positive aspects of the Liberty experience, and appreciates the friendships he develops there. There is a lot of humor in the book (for instance, his mission trip to Daytona Beach during spring break) but also a lot of respect. Roose successfully walks the fine line of finding the ridiculous aspects of his experience without mocking it. I liked this book a lot.

I was recently reminded of another fun stunt memoir that I forgot to blog about -- "Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany" by Bill Buford. Buford is an editor at the New Yorker who gets so into an article he is writing about Mario Batali that he quits his writing job and starts working in Mario's restaurant kitchen. This then leads him to other food-related adventures, and many funny, crazy learning experiences/nightmares. The book is full of crazy characters and it will either make you want to quit your job and be a chef or thank the lord that you are not sweating your life away in a restaurant kitchen. It's a very funny, interesting book.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

When Skateboards Will Be Free

I used to think my parents were weird and embarrassing, but they've got nothing on Said Sayrafiezadeh's parents.
In "When Skateboards Will Be Free", Said describes growing up as the child of ardent members of the Socialist Workers Party. What happens to a boy who spends his childhood sitting under tables stacked with "The Militant" while his mother tries to tell passers-by about the coming worker's revolution? Whose father moves back to Iran to run for president as the socialist candidate? Of course, Said grows up to work for Martha Stewart.
In between one extreme environment and the other is a very enjoyable, well-written story.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Know-It-All

I love "stunt" memoirs, books about a person trying something weird or crazy and then writing a book about how it went. Many readers love biographies which describe in detail the fascinating lives of great leaders or famous personalities. Unfortunately I usually give up at about page 150, before the person even starts doing great and worthy things. No matter how well written the biography, I just can't seem to stick with it.
However, if someone decides to go a year without shopping (Not Buying It, by Judith Levine) or cooks her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a tiny New York apartment kitchen (Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell) and then writes about it, I'm happy to read it. I don't know what I find so fascinating about these books, but I love them.
A.J. Jacobs has been kind enough to write two of these books for my reading pleasure. His first is the one that I read most recently, "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World", about Mr. Jacob's experiences reading the entire Encyclopædia Britannica. The book is written as a series of alphabetical entries in which he shares the weird and wonderful things he is learning, but also describes his family, his marriage, and his mostly unsuccessful attempts to impress his brilliant brother-in-law with his new-found knowledge. The book is very funny, very interesting, and a great read.
Mr. Jacobs went on to write another great stunt memoir, "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible". This book is even funnier, as might be expected. But while he plays the weirdness of many things in the bible for laughs, he is respectful towards the many religious people he meets during his quest. He also openly acknowledges how annnoying all of this is to his wife. I can only hope that he's made enough money off this book to make it up to her.
If I had to rank some of the stunt memoirs I have enjoyed, it would probably go like this:
1. The Year of Living Biblically
2. The Know-It-All
3. Not Buying It
4. Eat, Pray Love
5. Julie and Julia

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

I've been slowly reading the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" books by Alexander McCall Smith. I'm reading them slowly because I like them, and I find that if I read a series too quickly, I tend not to enjoy the later books as much. I think I've read five books in the series over the last couple of years, and there are a few more to go.

Usually the more I love a book, the more I hate the movie. However, HBO has made a TV series based on these books, and it's wonderful. I knew Jill Scott was a great singer, but I hadn't realized that she could also act. She seems perfectly cast as the lead character, Precious Ramotswe. When I first saw Anika Noni Rose onscreen, the actress who plays the detective agency's secretary, I thought it was terrible casting. The character, Grace Makutsi, is plain and awkward, while the actress is beautiful. I've always hated the idea that if a beautiful woman wears glasses, she looks plain. But Ms. Rose is so funny and plays her part so well, that within a few minutes I couldn't imagine her as anyone but Grace Makutsi. My mom compared her to Lucille Ball, and it's not a bad comparison.

The TV series is filmed on location in Botswana, and the setting adds a lot to the stories. You can see for yourself the beauty that Precious Ramotswe is always describing in the books. The series also does a good job with the tone of the stories, which varies from comical to serious to eerily supernatural. Precious Ramotswe's cases deal with everything from cheating husbands to insurance fraud to witch doctors, and she approaches them all with determination, compassion, and a thirst for justice.

I highly recommend both the books and the series. If you don't get HBO, I'm sure it will be released on DVD in a few months.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Should I Feel Old?

Having children makes you feel old. My children insist on calling my childhood years "the old days" even though I am quite sure that the old days were when MY parents were growing up. Which is weird, because I remember my parents saying the same thing about their parents.

However, lately I have been feeling very young, because people keep sending me emails that ask me if I am old. Since these emails refer to things like party lines, milk delivery, and green stamps, I must not be old. The strange thing is that these emails come from friends who are just a few years older than me, but the quizzes sound like they are intended for people who grew up in the 1940's and 1950's. My friends must be almost as confused as my children, who think that the natural follow-up to finding out that there were no cell phones when I was a child is the question, "Did you have electricity?" That's right kids, we didn't have cell phones because we couldn't charge them.

Here's some memories of my old-fashioned childhood in the 1970's:

The first car I remember is not a Studebaker, but our Ford Pinto. My brother used to scare me by telling me it would blow up if anybody hit us from behind. At the time, I thought he was making this up to tease me.

My kids would probably be confused by the cranks on the inside of the car doors. We turned these cranks to open and close the car windows. You had to walk right up to your car and put the key in the keyhole, then pull a handle, to open the doors. The only thing that beeped was the horn.

We had only one phone in our house, but not on a party line. And my dad put a long, curly cord on it so you could walk about 4 feet away from the wall while you were talking. That's what we considered a portable phone.

My mom didn't use an RC Cola bottle with holes in the lid to sprinkle water on her ironing. My mom didn't iron at all if she could help it. She bought my dad permanent press shirts that went in the dryer. All the rest of the laundry was hung on the clothes line to dry. This wasn't because we were "green", it was because with no air conditioning, our dryer would heat up half the house if you turned it on in the summer.

Birthday parties were pretty simple when I was a kid. You played "Red Light, Green Light" or "Red Rover" and you stood on a stepstool and tried to drop clothespins into a jar. Once, a new family moved to town, and the birthday girl's mom gave us goodie bags. I was confused, because I wasn't sure why I was getting a gift on someone else's birthday.

My kids are living in a world that is pretty different than the one I grew up in. On the other hand, some things haven't changed so much. My kids love to go to the movies, read stories, ride their bikes, and play on a playground. The best part of a birthday party is still the cake. My kids get bored on an airplane, but think sledding is thrilling.

It's fun to think about how my kids will describe their childhood to the next generation. "You won't believe this, but we couldn't upload information into our cyberbrains. We had to turn on the computer and actually read the screen to learn things! It took minutes!"

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wake Up, Sleepyheads!

Why am I sitting alone by the Christmas tree?
I've moved the kids' bedtimes back since school break began, and let the kids sleep a little later each day. I didn't want the kids to wake up too early on Christmas morning and have half the gifts unwrapped by the time I came downstairs. I gave them a little lecture last night, "If you wake up before Mom and Dad, you can open your stocking gifts and nothing else!"
But it's 7:30 a.m. and the kids are still fast asleep, and I'm getting tired of waiting for them. Santa left you some stuff, guys, come and get it! Or maybe I'll just eat the chocolates and play with the little RC cars - not that I would know what's in their stockings....

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

We Are the Grizwolds - Our Own National Lampoon Thanksgiving Vacation

I almost cancelled our Thanksgiving vacation, because we were all sick. But I thought, "What if we wake up tomorrow and feel better, and we've disappointed my family for no good reason?"
Now I'm thinking I should have listened to my first instincts. The kids got over their colds, but both suffered from upset stomachs over the weekend, and our daughter threw up. Our dog peed and pooped in my mom's house several times (in one of the few carpeted rooms, of course) and my husband and I were sniffling, sneezing, sucking on cough drops, and trying not to touch anyone. Even though he was already sick, my husband's allergies were made worse by my parents' cats. Every night was a Nyquil night, and it was still hard to sleep.
And then, on our way home, I drove our van into a ditch, rolled it, and totalled it. Our big holiday purchase ended up being a new car, and I'm sure only a small part of that will be covered by insurance.
On the positive side, no one was hurt in the car crash. And because I crashed only 30 miles from my parents' house, they got to pick us up and spend an extra day with their grandchildren while we bought the car.
Which is good, because we may never visit them again. Ever. We have bad holiday karma, so for now on I'm staying home!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Adventures in Istanbul

I'm sure we've all wondered what life was like for a eunuch in 19th century Istanbul. Well, to be honest I hadn't really considered it until I read "The Janissary Tree" by Jason Goodwin last year. It's a mystery novel whose detective is a eunuch named Yashim, who works for the sultan. It was a great read, and I just finished its sequel, "The Snake Stone".
I won't bother describing the plot because that's not the appeal of this book, or of The Janissary Tree either. I generally read mysteries very quickly, but I find that I have to read these books slowly because otherwise I would miss all the atmosphere. I knew almost nothing about Istanbul before reading the first book, but the descriptions of the city are amazing. I've paused while reading to look online for photos of the Aga Sofia, or to look up a point of Polish history after Yashim's friend, the Polish ambassador, mentions something that I'm not clear on. And the descriptions of Yashim's cooking are so detailed that not only can you practically smell it while you read, I think you could almost cook from this book.
If you are looking for a mystery with a quick pace and a clear plot, these are not the books for you. The Snake Stone, in particular, sometimes read more like a description for a movie version of itself than a novel. However, if you like historical fiction and would like to learn more about the people, places, and politics of Istanbul, then I would recommend these books

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Adventures of Tintin

My kids are on a Tintin kick these days. They discovered them in the comic book section of our library over the summer. I'm not one of those parents who worries about their kids reading comic books. First of all, I read comics when I was a kid, and I moved on to reading lots of big books with no pictures at all. Also, I still read comic books, so I'm having fun reading the Tintin books to my kids.
The Tintin books, by Herge (real name Georges Remi) were mostly written in the 1930's, 40's and 50's. Herge was Belgian, but the books take place everywhere from England to Tibet to the moon. Tintin is a young reporter who travels the world (and beyond) to investigate smugglers and spies and dangerous criminals. He spends a lot of time being shot at, hit on the head, held prisoner, threatened with death, and escaping from police officers after he's been set up by the bad guys. Perhaps because there is a lot of humor in the books, my kids never seem to be too worried about his fate. And they shouldn't be - Tintin always gets away, and he always gets his story.
Snowy is Tintin's adorable little white dog and trusty sidekick. Sometimes the bad guys try to shoot Snowy, but he always gets away, and usually shows up just in time to chew the ropes used to tie Tintin's hands together in captivity. Professor Calculus is a brilliant inventor who is very hard of hearing, so he often misunderstands what everyone is saying. Captain Haddock is a sailor with a strong temper and an even stronger taste for whiskey.
Apparently the Tintin books have been criticized for negative portrayals of some ethnic groups, but the books we've read so far have not been egregious - in fact Tintin makes fun of Europeans who stereotype the Chinese in The Blue Lotus. So if you don't mind exposing your children to violence, criminality, and jokes about alcohol dependency, your family might enjoy the Tintin books too.

I'm back! And I've been reading!

Where have I been, you ask? During my year-long blog hiatus, I have bought a house, sold a house, moved to another state, and I think I have just finished filling out the last of about 200 pages of forms for the kids' new school.
Now, however, I will have loads of time to write my blog. When the wee ones return to school, I will have hours and hours of nothing to do. Well, nothing but unpacking and putting away the 50 boxes of junk that fill two rooms of our new house. And buying or sewing window treatments for 22 windows. And reading!
There has, of course, been some reading over the last year. The book that has really stuck in my mind is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It's a book about a German girl growing up during World War II. Her parents are taken away because they are Communists, and she is taken in by a foster family. The husband is kind and patient; the wife is a foul-mouthed shrew who takes a long time to show the better sides of her personality.
I liked the book in part because it shows a less commonly portrayed view of the war and the Holocaust - ordinary German kids who have nothing against the jews, but who hate the Hitler Youth mostly because the teenage leaders are such jerks. The book also has an unusual style, including occasional illustrations. The narrator of the story is Death. He's pretty weary from all the extra work Hitler is creating for him, so he seems pleased to be distracted by this young girl and her story. At first I didn't like the style of the writing, but I kept reading and was pulled into the story. Somehow the narration by Death ended up working for me.
After I finished the book, I discovered that it was marketed as a young adult book. Although the main character grows from child to teenager during the story, I didn't think of it as a juvenile book when I was reading it. Any adult who likes a good story with interesting characters and relationships might enjoy this book. And although many sad things happen in the book, I didn't feel depressed when I finished it. That Death guy tells a good story.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Roundup of Picture Books

We've read a few fun picture books in the last week or so:

The Girl and the Elephant, by Nicole de Cock, begins, "This is the girl. She often goes to the zoo. She goes to see the animals, wishing there were no bars between them." The plain words and simple but beautiful illustrations tell the tale of a girl who becomes friends with an elephant at the zoo, and then follows the elephant back to Africa. It is a lovely book with a fantastical story. My seven-year-old daughter was charmed.

Clarabella's Teeth, by An Vrombaut, is the tale of a crocodile who has so many teeth that it takes her all day to brush them. By the time Clarabella is done brushing, her friends are done playing and going to bed. Don't worry, there is a solution. My four-year-old son found the bright colored pictures and humorous tale very entertaining.

Chato's Kitchen, by Gary Soto and illustrated by Susan Guevara, is the story of a cat who invites his new neighbors, a family of mice, over "for dinner." Unfortunately for the cat, he ends up eating a vegetarian meal. Fortunately, he has made a wonderful feast of salsa, fajitas, enchiladas, and other items that taste just fine without mouse meat. It's a cute story with a Latino theme, and it includes a glossary of the Spanish words used if you are not familiar with them. My kids enjoyed the story, but didn't ask to hear it again.

Super-Completely and Totally the Messiest by Judith Viorst is a story told by a girl convinced that she has the messiest little sister in the world. Many examples are given, complete with detailed illustrations of the chaos that young Sophie leaves wherever she goes. Luckily Sophie's family seems to appreciate that she is a good kid who just happens to leave a trail behind her wherever she goes. Both my kids liked this book, but it seemed to particularly appeal to my daughter, whose room tends to look like a post-Katrina photo of New Orleans.

All these books were plucked, seemingly at random, off the library shelves in about two minutes. I'm often surprised at how many good books my children find this way. None of these books are ones that I would run out and buy, but they certainly were worth reading and borrowing for a few weeks. Our weekly trip to the library has been a great part of this summer.