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.