Friday, May 13, 2011

Missing in action

Whoops – there has been quite the break in service at this blog.  What in the heck have I been doing? Oh wait, I had a baby.  I hope that is excuse enough for the delay in write ups for multiple books.

Since I’ve been missing in action we have read and discussed three books:

  • War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The “we” in that above sentence is rather generous as I did not read nor really attempt to read War & Peace.   I will write each recap to the best of my ability and then post them as if they were published in a timely manner.

We also brought our better halves together for a lovely dinner at Melinda's.  It can be a challenge to cook dinner for 14 people, so we were all assigned a group and that group made a specific element of dinner. It was interactive and fun.   Who knew that a zucchini patty could be so darned tasty.

The idea that we were able to find a date when we could all attend was noted as a book group miracle.

Slaughterhouse Five

Picking a ‘classic’ can be a crap shoot.  Some books are important in our world collection of works and they stand up to the test of time.  Hemingway's books come to mind for me.  Others are important because of what they meant at the time they were written but they don’t necessarily have the same impact in the modern world. 

As noted in the War & Peace write up, it is an amazing book, but many aspects of the story come across like a gossipy romance novel.  Important – ABSOLUTELY!  Impressive – certainly.   Timeless? – maybe not so much.

Slaughterhouse Five is one of those works.  It is considered an  “American Classic” and was hailed as one of the worlds greatest antiwar books. 

We knew little of the book before reading it.  Personally, I thought the Slaughterhouse Five was a reference to five individuals about whom the story would be centered.  I figured they experienced (or perpetrated) a horrific wartime event.  Nope, the reference is to the name of the building that was their makeshift war camp.    Because of the nature of the building the prisoners who were in that location when the firebombing of Dresden occurred they survived whereas the rest of the prisoners as well as the German captors were killed.   This, however, is NOT the primary story.

Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an ill-equipped young man who gets deployed behind the German front at the worst possible time.  Before he can even be issued jack boots he is separated from his unit and ends up being captured.   

Billy survives the war and goes back home to his boring life and his boring wife. 

The story of Billy is not told in a linear style, as Billy experiences ‘shifts’ in time.  He experiences his first moment of getting lost in time in 1944 where he seems to ‘check out’ and jump to a moment in the future.  It is not clear if these time traveling moments are actually his later self-re-experiencing the harsh moments of his life or his way of escaping these moments when they actually occur.  (Perhaps the book The Time Traveler’s Wife ruined me for time travel.)  Regardless, both the flash forwards and the moments in the war are accurate events in Billy's life.

The other unique thing about Billy is that sometimes he time travels to the time that he was abducted by aliens and held in a zoo on their planet.  There he learns that all life events occur simultaneously and all events are destined to happen.  He is informed that he will die on February 13th, 1976 and thus during the war he isn’t filled with terror that his life might end.  This doesn’t give him any extra confidence, but with the knowledge of future events he is more calm than a lesser informed person might be. 

It doesn’t take a genius to notice that the date of Billy’s death is 31 years to the day of the bombing of Dresden.  The 31 years doesn’t seem to see significant, but the author Is saying something about Billy by selecting that date.

We as a group felt that the book was dated and that there are far more detailed and informative books about WW2 available for readers.  The writing style was very simple and many of us finished this novel in a couple days. 

The author uses a phrase “so it goes” to punctuate moments of death.  It was an irritating nuance and while the intention is to show that that’s just how life works, it seemed to hammer the point home long after its usefulness.

A few members stated that this felt like a “boy book”.  We know that’s a dangerous statement because there is no actual definition of girl books or boy books.  The most general explanation I can give is that “boy books” tend to be story driven and little to no effort is made to get beneath the exterior actions of the characters.  Their feelings, fears, joys and emotions are not important to the story.  “Girl books” tend to present more of a balance between the plot points and how the characters feel about what is happening.  Cliché?  Sure, but this is our opinion.  For the record, war books can be “girl books” – The Things They Carried and Regeneration both fall into the “girl book” category for us.  Both were great reads and by no means should the males in our world ignore them as trivial.

We discussed the time travel aspect of the book at great length and wondered if when the novel was written if Vonnegut had much experience with men who had what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  We felt that Billy’s time travel was a symptom of PTSD.

Vonnegut tells this story with great detail because he in fact was a prisoner held in the underground slaughterhouse and while he is NOT the Billy Pilgrim character he does write his experiences into the novel. 

The randomness of who will live and who will die in a war situation are highlighted in that Billy Pilgram had no skills, no supplies and really no friends and yet he comes home, while another character is strong, savvy, well connected and ends up being shot to death over the theft of a teapot.  A teapot is a great metaphor for the most useless and trivial thing to die for in a city that has just been destroyed and all inhabitants have just died.  A teapot!

I for one am glad that to have finally read this novel.  Not because it was so great and mind-blowingly entertaining, but because it is part of our American Classics collection and it isn’t fair to comment on current authors without the benefit of having the critically acclaimed authors and books under your belt too.

The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Wow wow wow.  Some books make me really thankful to be a reader.  This book tells the story of one aspect of medical testing, the benefits gained, and the impact to a family who is an unwilling participant.  The author does a fantastic job of weaving the story of the family into the more clinical side of medical research.

Henrietta Lacks was a mother, a wife and an adored part of her community and in 1951 she died of a horribly aggressive strain of cervical cancer.  Mrs. Lacks tumors were biopsied and retained by Johns Hopkins University and they turned into one of the most prolific forms of human cells ever cultivated in our medical research community.  Because of the cells there were many advancements in cancer research, the most notable being the discovery of the HPV virus and its subsequent vaccine.  This advancement alone is expected to dramatically reduce cervical cancer in future generations of women.

Mrs. Lacks cells – known in the medical community as HeLa were cultivated and shipped around the world for testing in all manner of experiments.  HeLa cells were even sent into space as part of experiments. 
Divide and Conquer A HeLa cell splitting into two new cells.
The green spots are chromosomes.Courtesy Paul D. Andrews
While the doctor who initially treated Mrs. Lacks and took her cells discovered the amazing properties of the HeLa cells didn’t personally profit from them,  at least one multi-million dollar biotech company resulted because of the profitability of selling the cells to researchers around the globe.

The problem – neither Mrs. Lacks nor her family were asked if the cells could be obtained or used.  Her family were shocked to find out years later that their mother was “still alive”.  Furthermore the idea that people and companies were profiting from their mother while they couldn’t afford to see a doctor was extremely challenging.  

This book adeptly explores the topic of medical ethics.  From medical testing that occurred on poor and uneducated populations (the Tuskegee Experiments) to the fact that even in modern times when blood or tissues are sampled for needed testing the remainder of the samples that are unused after the tests are run are cataloged and used for research, Ms. Skloot does a remarkable job of bringing the facts to light in an accessible way.  She balances the benefits of the medical advancements that have been made with the emotional impact to this family. 

The Lack’s don’t have the medical background to understand that while the cells that were taken from their mother are still growing that she in fact is dead.  At one heartbreaking point in the book, her daughter who was 5 or 6 when her mom died asks if it would be possible to use the cells in a cloning process so she could have her mother back.   She is frantic at the idea that researchers are injecting her mother(s cells) with the AIDS virus, with other cancers and other diseases like polio.  She wonders if these tests are causing her mother pain.  Furthermore, in the 80’s little was known about the AIDS virus and the social stigma was also painful for this deeply religious family.

We felt that there were heroes in this true story.  Dr. Gey, the doctor who treated Mrs. Lacks and obtained the cells was a hero.  The idea of informed consent is a modern one and Dr. Gey didn’t operate with those rules.  He could have personally profited from his “discovery” but instead shared his findings (the cells) with the medical research community because it was best for mankind.
The author herself is a hero.  She advocates for the family, educates the family and supports their emotional journey and gives them what they likely need most – acknowledgement.

There was a hero at the mental institution where the Lack’s youngest sister lived and died who stepped up to not hide a horrific truth.  The facts of this little girls life and terrible death were hard to hear, but the relief felt by the family far overshadowed the somewhat reasonable desire by the institution to downplay or cover-up the truth of how life in institutions were at that time.
Along with the heroes there are some very heartbreaking aspects to this story.  The children of Mrs. Lacks suffered greatly after her death.  Not only were they at a disadvantage because they lost their mother at such as young age, but they were subjected to an almost cartoonish horrible step mother.  The youngest child was in an institution prior to her mother’s death, tragically misdiagnosed as an “idiot” when medically the likely  only real issue was deafness.  Additionally, once Mrs. Lacks, who visited with her daughter weekly, died no one ever visited the child again.  Her siblings were horrified to learn much later that they had a sister and that she had died without ever knowing why her mother never came back to see her.
The other tragic figure in the book is one of Mrs. Lack’s sons.  He suffered greatly at the hands of the step-mother and he turned into an angry, selfish man-child with no skills, no hope and no real happiness.

We felt the story was well told, it was accessible, touching and extremely relevant to our world. Ms. Skloot was hailed by the New York Times Book review as having told the Lacks family often painful history with grace.  I personally agree.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

War and Peace

Fair warning, I did not actually read this book.  I purchased it and made it to page 81 (well, my bookmark landed between page 80 and 81) but my notes will be heavily relied upon for the about to be very brief recap.

When we selected this book we did not specify a specific publication and we thought it wouldn't matter.  We thought there would be time to discuss the nuances between the different versions.  We are foolish.  We failed to remember that there are entire college courses devoted to the study of this work of fiction, and we thought that in addition to discussing the tone, story, character development, imagery, plot, historical accuracy, the essays, and intended messages that we could also compare various versions.  FOOLS.

We could have spent the entire 2 hours discussing the different plot points - who died in one book didn't in another, and which version of the story was "better".  As an observer it did seem that the gals who read the unabridged version seemed quite pleased with the longer more elaborate story line. 

Regardless of version read, there was a common feeling that the sections where Tolstoy is discussing his views of war were beating you over the head.  "Here's my point.  Here it is again, and just in case you missed it, this is my point."  No one seemed to dislike or take issue with the fact that in addition to the linear story of the five families that there were what read like essays interspersed.

One point that Tolstoy seemed to drive home is that there is a clear juxtaposition between the ideal of how glorious war is (was) often depicted and the reality of what it is really like.   He also makes it clear that it is his opinion that the idea that the war lends an implicit authorization to kill a large number of people, but in the end, it is still just murder.  Murder on a larger scale.

Tolstoy himself experienced war and did extensive research on the French invasion of Russia in 1812.  He used is own history and his learned knowledge to craft what is one of the best known books of all time. Most every point of fact regarding the events in his book have been annotated, in fact, there are points where he didn't have a reference and he calls those out as well.  This here* is fact and this** is something I couldn't find reference on.  That attention to detail is rarely seen.

The book was well received by the book group even though "it took 300 pages to figure out who was who", but after the characters were established the book "flew by".   This was one of our few book groups were the discussion of the book started the moment there was a majority of attendees and didn't stop until people were dropping like flies.  Heck, I brought a 4 week old baby to the meeting and she was of minor interest. 

The excited discussion was very fun to listen to and made me want to finally take the time to read it.  However, I went home fell asleep and my copy is now buried under other books that are getting my limited attention.  Maybe someday.  Maybe.