Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review: What I Was

"But would you listen if I told you how quickly time passes?"

What I Was
Meg Rosoff
224 pages

Rating: 6.5

It occurred to me the other day that if I really did love Meg Rosoff, maybe I should read more than one of her books. I'd only read How I Live Now (which is a masterpiece, to be sure) but she's written six other books. I'm not quite sure why I never got around to them before, but it's high time to remedy that.

What I Was is a very simple story. It opens with H, our narrator, explaining that he's a hundred years old and wants to tell us about a time in his life that changed everything. At the age of sixteen, he was shipped off to St. Oswald's boarding school for boys on the coast of England. H is smart, but not really good at anything. He hates the imprisonment of school but lacks the skills or knowledge to imagine anything different. But then he meets Finn, a boy living alone in a hut by the sea, and sort of falls in love with him. Their friendship changes the course of H's entire life.

I know what the summary sounds like, but this book went none of the directions I was expecting. It's not a love story in the classic sense, nor a romance (especially not in the way I expected). It's a coming-of-age story, both about H, and also, to a lesser (more surprising) extent, about Finn.

Rosoff is, of course, a beautiful writer. One of the reasons I was attracted to this book now, after putting it off for so long, is that I'm sick of YA plot. Don't get me wrong, I love YA, but they can get so repetitive and tiresome- there's a main character, they have a Problem, they meet A True Love, they Fight Something Against Them, etc. It's lacks a certain "literary-ness". Rosoff may be YA, but this book is literature. It's lovely and haunting and moving.

It's not perfect though. What I Was feels disjointed in parts, like we're viewing random scene's from H's life without comment. It also has feels very emotionally confused at times- the parts of the story that you'd expect to be powerful and moving feel glossed over, as though they just happened in passing. A character death feels like it's the same "volume" as a school play. I'm also not a huge fan of bits of the ending- I don't quite understand what happened in the years between H's days with Finn and his 100-year-old self. Incidentally, when I read the book, I accidentally skipped the last chapter. The penultimate chapter ends on such a perfect note that I assumed the remaining pages were author's notes and didn't notice until the following day.  

I do wish Rosoff had given us more time with H at the end of his life, speaking to us from a world in which rising seas have eaten away at the land. Her writing is at it's best there, evoking bittersweet emotions about time and loss. What I Was was apparently inspired by A Separate Peace, but I've never read that so I can't comment on the similarities. What it did most remind me of though was Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin.  When H says "Time erodes us all", he's tapping into the same essence as Atwood's "Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown." They're writing about history, the choices in our lives that shape us, and what remains if there's no one left to understand how it all came to pass.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

"If our mother was so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?"

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot
400 pages

Rating: 9

A couple months back, I was hanging about my kitchen with my roommate Joyce, lounging while she cooked us dinner. "Oh," she said, "I was reading about this crazy new book recently that I think you'd love. I can't remember the title, but it's some sort of futurey dystopia, kind of like The Handmaid's Tale. Scientists stealing women's cells and growing them. Have you heard of it?"

I hadn't, which I found perplexing. That is the sort of story I love and I'm usually very on top of any hot new dystopian releases. It didn't take me too long to track it down though; apparently everyone had been talking about it for the past year.

"Joyce," I said, "I found it. But it's not a dystopia, it's non-fiction. It is a real story about a woman. It actually happened."

She stared at me. "No! Are you serious? That is way too creepy to be real."

Exactly. That conversation perfectly encapsulates everything about the entirely true story of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal, cellular life. Back in the 1950s, Henrietta Lacks, a poor Black woman from Baltimore, contracted cervical cancer. She went for treatment at Johns Hopkins, but unfortunately died shortly thereafter. However, unbeknownst to her and her family, a doctor had taken a sample of her cancerous cells and managed to grow them in a lab. And keep growing them. They were the first human cells to reproduce without dying in lab conditions, and thus invaluable for research. Everyone wanted them, and since they kept growing, everyone could buy some.

Skloot does a marvelous job. It would have been very easy to only focus on Henrietta herself and the scientists directly involved with her life, death, and post-death immortality. Instead, the true focus of the story is on Henrietta's descendants and the destruction and madness the cells have brought them. Skloot embarked on a personal odyssey with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter, to uncover the buried truth about her past and who her mother was. She weaves in spiritual questions about what it means to be alive, as well as truly horrifying facts about doctors in the era before informed consent (an era that persisted much, much longer than I had ever thought).

It's not a particularly happy read. The scientific history is alarming, the questions about bodily ownership are frightening. I spent the whole time wanting the ending to wrap everything up, to answer the hard questions and to tell me that it's all been figured out and we don't have to worry. Of course, it couldn't do that. Moreover, the Lacks family is disturbing. Skloot doesn't try to whitewash their history- there's child abuse, sex abuse, and mental illness. But neither does she put them on display- she wasn't just writing about them in the abstract. Skloot spent countless hours with Deborah and her relatives, traveling and studying with them. They're not just characters we're supposed to be shocked by, they're people, with beautiful and tragic moments all tangled together. It might not always be uplifting, but it is incredibly powerful.

Beyond it's power as a human story, this book is important. I'm planning on being a doctor, my grandparents were doctors, my father is a doctor, my mother is a social-work researcher. It's easy to get aggravated at people who just "don't trust doctors" and refuse to listen to advice. But as recently as the '70s, doctors were letting Black men in Tuskegee die of syphilis so that they could study the effects. In the '60s, a doctor in New York injected unknowing patients with cancer to watch them fight it off; he went on to be named president of the American Association for Cancer Research. Black residents of Baltimore in the '50s told each other stories that if they stayed out after dark, Hopkins would steal them away. Part of the difficulty the Lack's family faces is that they just don't understand what cells are or what any of the science involved means. It's easy to forget that not everyone gets to take college-level biology. It's easy to get arrogant. It's easy to pretend that it's all in the past, but what The Immortal Life really shows us is that nothing is every truly over.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review: The Hunt

"When you're craved, you go extinct."
The Hunt (#1 in a series)
Andrew Fukuda
304 pages

Rating: 3

A YA vampire book where the vampires aren't beautiful and brooding, but instead a frightening nightmare species? And our beautiful human protagonist doesn't fall into a ~doomed love~ with one of them? When I first heard about The Hunt, it sounded way too good to be true; finally, a vampire story that didn't instantly read like a list of stupid romantic cliches. Plus I do so enjoy gladiatorial "let's murder kids for entertainment" stories.

Alas, it was too good to be true.

Gene, our teenage protagonist, is the only human left alive and free in a world run by vampires. He survives by blending in, spending his days at school desperately trying not to sneeze or twitch to give away his human status. He's made it to high school, but then gets selected to participate in a super-rare bread-and-circuses spectacle, hosted by the mysterious "Beloved Ruler"- a human hunt! All the sudden attention makes it increasingly difficult for Gene to pass, and complications ensue. He's infatuated with a beautiful classmate, he realizes the humans they'll be hunting aren't just dumb cattle, and the media wants to give him a book deal. How the heck is he going to survive this?

I've made it sound like a comedy- though now that I think of it, I think this book would have worked much better as a parody- which isn't really the case. It's serious and grim, but unfortunately, Fukuda lacks the writing chops to pull it off.

To Fukuda's credit, the vampires in this book are not normal people with a tragic aversion to light. They're disgusting and alien; they sleep upside-down, they melt into pus in the sun, they are driven into an insatiable blood lust by the scent of a human. Imagine if the first time Bella cut her hand in class, Edward ripped off her arms and devoured her alive.

Unfortunately, this ties into first major flaw of the book: the world building doesn't make sense. Are the vampires another species? Humans apparently become vampires if bitten or scratched, but the vampires aren't ageless (but might be immortal?), and reproduce by having babies. Fukuda tries to make them seem even weirder, by giving them an entirely different range of physical expressions (scratching a wrist instead of laughing, etc), which is good when it works, but when it doesn't...woo boy (two words: armpit sex). Not to mention, why is technology at such a weird level? They have touchscreen computers but ride horse-drawn carriages? And what does "heper", vampire slang for human, even mean?

Plus, the general premise doesn't make sense. Why blend in? The risks are so insanely high, not that Gene makes them any easier for himself. Why be on the swim team if goosebumps would give you away? Why play spin the bottle with your vampiric classmates? There's also a nearby desert waste, know as "The Vast", that vampires hate to cross- why didn't his family gather up supplies during the day, take some horses and try to see what's on the other side? Or just secretly live out there and steal supplies? Heck, why not become a vampire and finally fit in just like you've always wanted?

Beyond our weirdly dumb protagonist, the vamps are all just set pieces labelled "antagonist", and even the humans lack dynamic qualities. In their defense, we don't spend a whole lot of time with any other humans in the book, so they haven't had time to flesh-out. The main female character does stand on her own, and there's a genuinely sweet moment between her and Gene bonding over shared human twitchiness. She's also smarter than Gene; frankly, the book should probably have been about her. Bonus points for having no love triangle in sight (yet).

The plot itself isn't bad. There is some genuine tension in watching Gene desperately try not to get caught, and I was truly surprised at a certain "oh shit" moment. I also didn't see the final twist coming, but I suspect that's more because I'm an idiot rather than it being clever. Mostly though, it's pretty predictable. That's not inherently bad- I mean, we all knew Katniss wasn't going to die in the Hunger Games- but without compensating by pulling me into the story or the characters, getting to the end felt like a chore. I had been hoping for intense survival drama, but the hunt itself is anticlimactic and only happens in the last 10% (sidenote: ebooks need to get page numbers). Fukuda also tries to introduce some potential down-the-line political intrigue, but it falls flat.

Tl;dr- This is Fukuda's first book and it shows. The writing is often laughingly melodramatic (Gene refers to swimming underwater as "The Forbidden Stroke") and sometimes weirdly stilted from a lack of pronouns. The Hunt earns a solid participation award for trying, but fails to deliver a coherent, engaging story. But there's definite potential for improvement, so I'll likely be glancing at book two when it rolls around.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

"Some lives are predestined, so that a single error destroys all that is to come."

The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas
1243 pages

Rating: 9

I know, I know. Your eyes glance over the page count then shoot back up to it, face crinkled in confusion. Yes, really, it's that long. The key is not to panic and remember that it was released as a serial over the course of two years, so if you want you can take that long to read it and smugly claim you did it for authenticity.

You won't want to take that long though. Trust me.

The story of Monte Cristo is pretty famous. There have been a dozen movies, plays, and even an anime version set in the 51st century (which is actually quite good). At its core, the story is eminently simple: Young Edmond Dantes has everything going for him: a beautiful fiancee, a fantastic job as ship's captain, a loving father and devoted friends. But it all comes to ruin when he's thrown into prison for a crime he didn't commit. Fourteen years later, he manages to escape, and sets out on a path of revenge against those who wronged him. 

There's a bit more to it than that, but it's best to discover the details on your own. Even if you've seen screen versions, I promise you don't know everything. Despite the daunting page count and its being written in the 1800s, it's incredibly readable. Dumas (thankfully) lacks that Dickensian quality of writing a sentence so long you forgot how it began. The jokes are still funny, the insults and "sick burns" still scathing, the images so detailed you can close your eyes and see it. And boy does it have everything you have ever wanted in a story: love, betrayal, revenge, murder, insanity, drugs, suicide, lesbians, bandits, serial-poisonings, duels, tragedy, redemption.  

It took me a bit over a week to complete, but I did it while at the beach and had endless free time. I just couldn't put it down. I also couldn't stop talking about it, probably to the annoyance of everyone about me. Every  few chapters I'd mutter "holy crap!" to myself or stare up from the page all wild-eyed. It's the sort of story I wish could have been read out loud to me when I was younger, for maximum effect. My mother told me about how, as a child, she snuck into her parents bedroom at every chance to read it. This is a book that delivers. It's skyrocketed to a coveted position on the list of best books I've ever read, which is saying something. Go read it.

Lastly, if nothing else, it taught me that people in the mid-1800s were just as enthralled with vampire stories as we are today. The more things change...