Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for September, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Posted by nliakos on September 24, 2011

by Rebecca Skloot (Broadway 2010, 2011)

Over the years, the University of Maryland’s First Year Books program has selected some pretty amazing books, and this is one of them. Rebecca Skloot became obsessed with finding out the story of the woman behind the HeLa line of cells which have been used by researchers around the world to find explanations for some of biology’s basic questions, as well as cures for some of our most feared diseases.  The HeLa cells are still multiplying 60 years after being harvested from the cervical tumor that killed Baltimore mother of five Henrietta Lacks, without her knowledge or consent. Lacks was a poor African-American with a limited education.  Her family was not to find out for two decades that her cells were being used for medical research, and in the process were being bought and sold and shipped all over the country and the world.  When they did find out, they were understandably angry. They wondered why, if their mother’s cells had played such an important role in the progress of medical science, they themselves could still not afford to buy health insurance or to pay for their own medical care.

Into their story steps young Rebecca Skloot, who spent about ten years tracking down the story of Henrietta, her children and grandchildren, and her amazing, seemingly immortal, cell line.  Skloot describes how she slowly won the confidence of the Lacks children, who unsurprisingly did not trust a white reporter to deal with them honestly.  She depicts them with sympathy and honesty. Along the way, she raises deep questions about race and medical ethics.

It was hard to put this book down–I finished it in only three days.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Posted by nliakos on September 24, 2011

by Muriel Barbery (Europa Editions, 2006)

This is a story about three people: a middle-aged concierge, a young girl, and a wealthy Japanese widower.  They all live in the same Paris apartment building and all are out of the ordinary: intelligent, thoughtful, and exceedingly private. The book describes how they come to recognize in each other kindred spirits.  The hedgehog of the title, the concierge Renee Michel, relaxes by reading philosophy and great literature while the television in her loge plays dumb shows all day long in order to fool the snobbish tenants of the building into thinking she is what she seems to be.  She has only one friend, a less educated but no less intelligent Portuguese cleaning woman who works in the building–until Kakuro Ozu, the extremely wealthy Japanese businessman, moves into the building.  He recognizes the uniqueness of both Madame Michel and of Paloma, the young girl, and befriends them both, at the same time awakening in each an interest in the other (without him, they would never have seen past each other’s exteriors).  Madame Michel tries to resist Ozu’s offer of friendship on the grounds that it is inappropriate, but he refuses to be put off.  Actual happiness just just within reach, when….

I cried on the bus as I read the ending to this beautiful novel.  Two days later, I went to see The Hedgehog, the movie based on the novel, and was impressed by the rendering of the novel onto the big screen.  I recommend both the book and the movie.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

A Hat Full of Sky

Posted by nliakos on September 3, 2011

by Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins 2004)

This is my first Discworld series novel and my first Terry Pratchett. I enjoyed it, despite wishing I had started with The Color of Magic, which is the first in the series. (I prefer to read series in order.)  It tells the story of eleven-year-old Tiffany Aching (I wonder: aching, like my head is aching? Or ATCHing? or uhCHING?), going to study witchcraft under the tutelage of Miss Level (a witch who happens to have two bodies), who is invaded by something called a hiver (I kept wanting to pronounce it eeVEHR, like the French word for winter) and must fight for her life, with the help of other witches and a bunch of little blue fairies called the Nac Mac Feegle.  Said like that, it doesn’t sound very good, but I did enjoy it. It was a quick read. I might look for others in the series, but not right away.

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | 6 Comments »

Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation*

Posted by nliakos on September 3, 2011

*Or How He became Comfortable Eating Live Squid

by J. Maarten Troost (Broadway Books 2008)

Lost on Planet China reminds me a lot of Bill Bryson’s books, only slightly less funny (which is not to say it isn’t funny, but Bryson sets the humor bar extremely high, in my opinion). Also like Bryson, Troost uses a kind of wicked humor that makes the reader a bit reluctant to actually go to China. He makes it sound like a not very nice place, in a humorous kind of way.  For example, having acknowledged that Chinese cities are polluted, Troost writes on page 51, “…in no way was I ready for the swirling filth that constitutes air in Beijing. It was, frankly, apocalyptic.” And again on page 217, “We’d been discussing the air in Guangzhou, because it simply could not be ignored. It was worse than Shanghai. It was worse than Qingdao. It was worse even than Beijing. The air in Guangzhou is brown. No, not brown. Yellow. No, not yellow. The air in Guangzhou is sick. It is unwell. The air has been poisoned and now the air is noxious. Today, the average life expectancy for a traffic zop in Guangzhou is forty-three.” And so on, with a lot about people hawking up gobs of phlegm in the streets.  It doesn’t make me want to start planning a Chinese vacation anytime soon.

Actually, I have been to Beijing, twice, in 2003 and 2004.  I have to admit that I didn’t really notice the pollution.  I guess I must be very unobservant.  It probably helped that I was not there during cold weather when coal is being burnt everywhere, and (I was told) when you take a shower, black stuff runs off your body in streams. But I didn’t really find Beijing to be significantly worse than New York, air-quality-wise. And I never saw anyone spit in the street. Nor have I ever seen any of my Chinese students spit in public. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen–just that maybe it isn’t as common as Troost would have us believe.

Anyway, Troost, accompanied part of the time by his Republican friend Jack, manages to visit all the cities listed above and a lot more, including Lijiang, Lhasa, Hong Kong, Macau, Xi’an, Shenzen, Dali, Zhongdian, Chongqing, Dunhuang, and more places you’ve probably never heard of (I hadn’t).  In one of my favorite chapters, he describes their hike to Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Yangtze River, despite Jack’s poor physical condition and his own fear of heights ( to say nothing of the “colossal amounts of donkey crap along the way”).  Of Tibet, he does not mince words: “Outside of China, it’s possible to believe that Tibet is simply a colorful province in a larger country. Inside Tibet, however, it can only be seen as a military occupation of a foreign land.” (p. 307)

It’s not a great advertisement for China, but it’s a funny and very interesting book.

Posted in Non-fiction | 1 Comment »