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Monday, May 21, 2012

The Books I Read: March - April 2012


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A non-fiction book that's basically two different narratives. One is about a breed of cervical cancer cells sampled that are able to thrive in culture -- which has been a tremendous boon to scientists. With a constant supply of unchanging cells, research has opened for developing commercial drugs, IVF, and vaccines. This part also brings up issues of medical ethics and who owns your cells.

Because the other part is about Henrietta Lacks, the person from whom those cells were "donated". Also her family, and the author's journey to find out about her. Henrietta Lacks died shortly after her cells were taken, and both she and her family were poor and ignorant, never really knowing that part of Henrietta Lacks was still floating around. The main character of this story, besides the author, is Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter. At this point, she's an old woman, and she's paranoid (and probably senile) about helping some white lady write a book, since many people have tried to cash in on her "fame".

My favorite part is the discussion about the medical ethics, the politics of medicine, the evolution of the use of HeLa cells, and generally the part that doesn't have to do with the family. Not to say that part wasn't interesting -- I learned more about the reality of poverty and people in it from this book than others. But I guess it's because I'm like the doctors -- I don't need to know how the sausage is made to enjoy it.

However, Rebecca Skloot did. In fact, she describes that as her inception for the book. Virtually no one knows who it was that donated the cells that saved thousands of lives and propagated billions of dollars in research. Or that "donate" is a highly suspect term -- doctors did not treat black patients with much regard, because, well, they couldn't fight back. Or that it shone light on the questionable medical practices regarding non-whites and the poor and ignorant. To this day, despite the fact that their grandmother innovated billions of dollars of medical discoveries, her family still can't afford health insurance.

Despite this, they still aren't very interested in getting any money from HeLa cells. They are happy that their family was able to help so many people. Except that they seem to think that there are "clones" of Henrietta Lacks walking around London. Even after the author explains over and over what that means.

That's where it gets a bit obnoxious for me. Skloot demonstrates tremendous patience with Deborah Lacks who seems to be senile, and reacts with sudden fits of neurosis. She acts like a mental patient, so that the book becomes almost padded with "crazy woman obscuring the truth for the sake of word count". I guess I'm not describing the book very well. It's a good read, and interesting. But it doesn't feel like a book for me.


Live and Let Undead edited by Hollie Snider

Hey, I'm in this one! Along with a lot of other cool stories about zombies.

You know, I gotta admit, I'm a pretty hard sell on anthologies. I'm not a short story reader. And the idea of reading stories about the same damn thing, over and over, sounds awfully repetitive. Especially for such a niche topic in a genre within a genre. In this case, not just zombies, but zombies at work.

This anthology does a pretty good job of keeping the variety up. There's horror stories, there's funny stories, there's romantic stories, there's touching stories, and sick stories. It's a thick volume too (and my story's way at the back).


An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

John Green floored me with "Looking for Alaska". It has been years since I read a book like that -- a book where I wanted to be in that universe, where I felt like I was the main character, where I went through the same emotions (you can read my previous review here and here). An Abundance of Katherines is... not so flooring. It's missing something. I think the characters and plot seem too implausible -- wacky, but not realistically wacky.

The main character is a snobby child prodigy who can anagram anything. Despite his feelings of alienation and being all up in his head (because he's gotten dumped for the nineteenth time), he still constantly shows off. The thematic thread through the story is that he's working on a math equation to predict who will be dumped in a relationship -- an objective formula based on subjective variables(?). Also he keeps dating only girls named Katherine (not Catherine or Kathryn). I've never even met nineteen girls with the same name.

His best friend is a fat, quick-witted Muslim named Hassan who seems to have a thing for Judge Judy. Ladies and gentleman, this character doesn't exist. It gets even more implausible when Hassan convinces the mopey main character to take a road trip. They're both eighteen, freshly graduated, and decide to go down to bumpkin-ville, where they then take up residence in some stranger's house who offered them a busywork job on the spot going to other strangers' houses and collecting oral histories. Maybe it's my conservative, safety-conscious Midwestern upbringing, but RED FLAG! RED FLAG!

It seems like John Green decided to turn 180 with his writing style on this one. No more melodramatic high school. Now it's fast times, introspection, and loads of obnoxious footnotes. I'd like to read his other books (I hear "The Fault in Our Stars" is good, and sounds like it takes a bigger page from "Alaska"), but this one seems highly skippable.


Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

My favorite thing I read this month. The plot isn't very dissimilar from H. Beam Piper's version. Both revolve around issues of sentience and environmentalism. Both end in a lengthy courtroom drama. And both plots tie up with the same "deus ex" revelation. But Scalzi's version has all his fast-paced, snarky, quick wit. Although, that's not necessarily a good thing.

Piper's version takes its time to explain the issues they're facing -- why it's so hard to define sentience, how both parties plan to mount their defense. Scalzi's version has more action. It's plays like a movie, with interjected action sequences that could be lifted out without losing anything. Granted, it's a fine movie, but it lacks the depth of both the original material and Scalzi's previous works. The main character is kind of a dick, and the stakes don't seem as important as before (constant negotiations for the gobs of money from his claim instead of how do you define a human vs. animal?). On the other hand, the main character is a dick a la Tony Stark, and it's damn funny to watch him outwit just about everyone who crosses him. He manages to be the kind of guy we want to be, but not be around. It's a beach read.


The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games Trilogy edited by Leah Wilson et al.

I bought this book for a few reasons. One, I enjoyed the Harry Potter essays so much. Two, the eBook version had some bonus material based on the movie. Three, I'd just seen the Hunger Games movie and wanted to sound smart when talking about it.

I don't think these essays are as good as the Harry Potter ones, for a few reasons. One, the authors weren't as well-established. They seemed too New York Times snobby (they certainly aren't my "favorite authors"). Two, a lot of the essays kept covering the same material over and over -- Katniss is a strong woman, Peeta vs. Gale, social issues. It could also be that there's less material to cover, given that there's only three books. And each of those books tend to repeat each the same material.

I don't see any real reason to read this one. Unlike Harry Potter, I think The Hunger Games is too contemporary to become a legend. It's a sign of our times, and those times, they are a-changing. And don't think this revelation makes me happy. But I don't see a real reason to recommend this.


WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

I've had this book on my "to-read" list for a long time, since it was nominated for a Hugo. I was doing my first Hugos and where you can find them and read the excerpt about a blind teenage girl in high school who liked math and web surfing. I thought "this is an awesome character. I'd like to read about her." But the opening chapter did not lead to the story I thought it would be, like Scott Westerfeld.

The story I thought it would be was about this cool blind, math girl and about her personal life and how she copes being smart and disabled and boys and socializing. In fact, there's almost nothing of that and plenty of math essays and Crichton-esque infodumps. I'm sure they'd be fascinating, if I was into math. But I'm not. The main thread is about an operation to get her sight back, but a backfire lets her "see" the World Wide Web, although most of the text is her trying to interpret what she sees.

And that's when the story stays on track. There are four or five other narratives going on at the same time, none of which connect to the main plot and none of which wrap up by the end of the book. One is about the Chinese government shutting down the Internet. Another is about a Chinese dissident. Still another is about a chimpanzee at a zoo that can paint portraits. And still another is this entity coming into existence who only speaks in existential dialogue as he tries to figure out his "self" and "the other", except you don't know that it's an emerging AI until the end of the book. And by the end of the book, all of these threads are still hanging in space.

There's nothing at stake for her. She gets the operation, it doesn't work at first, but then it does. There are no consequences -- if it doesn't work, nothing changes. The few parts that are about her personal life are so cliche they could have come out of Dawson's Creek. There's the hot guy at school who asks her to prom, gets too touchy-feely, and there's tears, but she forgets about him a page later. Then, as if throwing the audience a bone, she "confronts" him at the end by insulting his hockey team. Collectively, that's as far as you get for her human side and it takes about ten pages.

I wanted to know about how she gets along with others, but instead I'm reading about her eye implant and math equations. There's no real goal. The plot proceeds upon a long continuous line with no hills or valleys. It reads like a very long prologue to something (it's the first part of a trilogy, I guess). Maybe if you read a lot of Robert J. Sawyer, you'd like it. But what it says on the tin is not what I got when I opened the can.
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