Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lit, by Mary Karr

For those of us bitten by the memoir bug, Mary Karr reigns. Though her first books were poems, Karr is best known for The Liars' Club, which tells the story of her childhood. The nuts and bolts of the story of her early life are not for the faint hearted: She was raped as a youngster, and had unstable, alcoholic parents who alternatively left her unsupervised and terrorized her. At the pinnacle of Karr's mother's psychosis, she held a butcher knife over Mary, intending to murder her. This amidst a raging fire the mother had just set, burning all their belongings.

"Lit" begins as Mary enters adulthood. As one might expect, after surviving an upbringing like hers, she writes of herself in the story as someone who is wobbly, cobbled together, the bumps in life easily opening up cracks in the foundation of her well-being. In "Lit" she marries, has a son, becomes an alcoholic, divorces, and enters into recovery for her alcoholism, all the while plodding along, working to become an author. Karr is a narrator with nary a whine or complaint. In fact, there is an honest, humorous, cowboy-flavor in her telling that spares no one, not even the author, as a player in the insanity.

For those of us who, along with Karr, are card-carrying members of the dyspeptic, are-you-making-this-up version of childhood, (and I include myself in that group), "Lit" feels like someone has finally opened the window and let in some fresh air. My favorite line, "If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling", seems to me to be a truth long waiting to be articulated.

Karr not only survives a childhood not fit for survival, but is able to remember and recount it in astonishing detail. Yes, Karr has had an amazing life, but "Lit" helped me realize that we all have amazing lives. "Lit" left me seeing that the amazingness of our lives comes with flipping back the pages of time and bringing out the richness that comes with remembering the smallest of details. When those small bits of truth are revealed, the challenge is to plumb the depths of our courage and look straight at them. I love the way Karr reaches down, grabs hold of truths, and looks at them unflinchingly. Yes, "Lit" is another drama-and-trauma memoir, but it's honest, and it's good.

Below is a link to a recent article about women's fiction, that explores the complaint that women write either dark narratives denoted as "misery lit" or the fluffy stories known as "chick lit".

Women's fiction: All misery and martinis?

Monday, March 29, 2010


No book review today! As if any Jew today has the wherewithall to open a book not titled Hagadah, anyway. If you happen to have a minute or two between cleaning and monitoring your matzah balls as they bob in the broth (Actually, my mother-in-law swears by cooking them in chicken broth, despite the fact that quarts of stock get "muddied" with matzah ball starch and are therefore wasted. As much as I trust her kitchen tips, it's hard for me to put "stock" into this suggestion; She hasn't made matzah balls in decades. (Sorry, Mom.) Mine, if I may say so myself, come out delicious when boiled in water straight from the tap.) then consider checking out the thought provoking links below.

Yesterday's New York Times had a lovely article about the newly instituted White House Seder, which is actually not an official function but an uber-casual, cobbled-together affair.

In today's Jewish World Review, Jonathan Tobin delves deeper. At first blush the White House Seder struck me as inclusive and open-hearted, but now I'm left ambivalent, pondering what the event, or the article about the event, really means. Food (kosher for Passover, of course) for thought.

As I write, I can hear my mother-in-law's voice as she speaks to no one but herself, finishing up her standard three hour long morning "toilet", in the upstairs kids' bathroom. Downstairs, my father, now eighty-five, practices piano. He decided to teach himself to play two years ago in an attempt to stave off the brain atrophy that creeps up when one enters his eight decade. His repertoire includes Fur Elise, Someday My Prince Will Come, and an assortment of Christmas carols. Right now, he's playing Jingle Bells. As he dings out the melody, the bass, provided by his left hand, never moves from a single note, a low C.

Yes, I complain, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
Enjoy Passover!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Matzo Ball Heiress, by Laurie Gwen Shapiro

It's such a busy time of year. As my friend just reminded me, sometimes you just need something that's pure fun, and I think that's doubly true right now when we're all rushing around like maniacs. The premise of The Matzo Ball Heiress is just that. It's delicious, in a non-nutritive, Cap'n Crunch-y way (although that stuff isn't kosher for Passover. For all I know it isn't kosher any other time of the year, either.)

Enjoy Heather Greenblotz's travails as an irreverent, intelligent young woman, daughter of a matzo dynasty as she deals with said family, each one as laden with issues as matzo ball soup is with matzo balls. (And who decided the word matzo ends with the letter "o"? Is there anybody out there actually pronouncing it matzO?)

A friend sent me this link to a youtube video of a tour of Streit's matzah factory. Streit's matzah is my favorite for everyday Passover use. Their family-run matzah business, generations old, is a great non-fiction version of the whimsical story above.
Click here: YouTube - Martha Stewart's Streit's Tour

If you've never taken the plunge and purchased "real" shmura matzah (ha!) from the Lubavitchers, I highly recommend it. Can't get it at the stores, gotta deal with the actual bearded guy or bewigged Rebettzin. This stuff is "watched" from the time the wheat is harvested until the time of packaging. Every time I bite into the burnt, crackly stuff, I get a picture of a little, old, gray-bearded rabbi, sitting in a folding chair out in the wheat field, making sure not a drop of moisture "traifs" up the wheat. The Lubavitchers, although uber-observant, go about their "business" of uniting, inviting and welcoming each and every Jew in their own unique way. The addition of their shmura matzah always brings a little something extra to my Seders.

Happy and Kosher Passover to all!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How This Night is Different, by Elisa Albert

It's almost here. The cleaning, the shopping, the endless preparation of special foods has begun. Can you tell I'm not quite in the spirit yet? I don't hate Passover, but I do hate the prep. Passover is actually my second favorite holiday (Sukkot coming in first) and when all is said and done, all the eggs hard-boiled, all the briskets sliced, and matzah balls molded, I enjoy it immensely. The moment the curled parsley leaves, dripping with salt water, hit my tongue, the magic of the holiday immediately transports me; winter becomes spring. But still, did G-d have to require such a crazy amount of effort for us to celebrate our freedom? How about some freedom from the meticulous cleaning and hours upon hours of food preparation? How about, "Let my people -- meaning us women, of course -- go -- out of the kitchen!

Okay. It's an old joke. Like all things funny, though, it rings true. Such is also the case with How This Night is Different. The Jewish characters in these stories and the uniquely Jewish situations they find themselves traversing are all spot-on. How could I not think of this great story collection, replete with a Maneschewitz bottle on the cover, this time of year?

Here's the thing: I am not usually a fan of short stories. I know this is not a trendy, enlightened literary opinion, but the limited length of the form, and -- to be honest -- the style in which a lot of the short stories I have sampled are written just hasn't grabbed me. I need to feel a strong connection with the characters, and maybe it's easier for a writer to fully and believably develop a character in the longer form of a novel. Or, then again, maybe it's just me.

I haven't looked at How This Night is Different since it first came out in 2008, but I'm putting it back on my library request list. Now if I could only get out of the kitchen long enough to read it again....

Postscript One:
For those dog-tired of the jam-sweet kosher wines.... Blessed juice: Your guide to great kosher wines

Postscript Two:
A few weeks ago I posted a review of Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like, a tongue in cheek description of the tastes of us white folk. A recent article in Salon discusses Nell Painter's new book, The History of White People, which explores this subject from a scholarly point of view. Two fascinating facts I gleaned from the article: the whole idea of the white race is actually a social construct; and, the slaves in ancient Rome were white-skinned. This world we live in constantly amazes me; how could anyone ever get bored?

"The History of White People": What it means to be white

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

I began this post last week, but rather than finishing it I kept moving on to other reviews. After taking stock of my lack of progression I had to admit it: I was having an issue. Why the procrastination? My ambivalence was rooted in the fact that I recommended A Gate at the Stairs to a close friend, who ended up not loving it. I felt terrible, like I had set up a blind date that bombed. Not that I've ever set anyone up. And I hope I never do - jeez, what responsibility! Still, every time I recommend a book I feel like I'm asking the would-be reader to take a chance. Invest a few hours. These days time feels so precious, that to ask a friend to give up even this relatively small amount of time feels akin to asking her to put herself out there on a blind date.

To add insult to injury, it turns out that the book summary printed on the back of the audio version is inaccurate. Kind of off-putting.

In A Gate at the Stairs, Tassie Keltjin is a young, Midwestern college student who gets a job as a nanny for a couple who are in the process of adopting a biracial baby. Tassie is not overly ambitious, has a bit of a slacker mentality, but she's clever and funny and is a keen observer of those around her. She's young and naive, coming-of-age and facing complex situations. I fell in love with Tassie, I understood the way she thought and her stupefied confusion at the craziness going on around her.

There were a lot of suspenseful subplots in Moore's new book, and not all of which wove together neatly. Some of these strands landed way far afield from here I expected them to, or fizzled out altogether. Still, with a character so wry and engaging, I couldn't help but love this story. Once I fall in love with a book's protagonist, I'm a goner; I can't help but love the book.

I am two-thirds of the way through Lit, by Mary Karr, and I feel confident I'll be able to recommend it without any reservation.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Well Enough Alone, by Jennifer Traig

Last night my middle child woke me up from a deep sleep. She stood over my bed, mute, a confused look on her face. And then she was gone. I knew something was wrong, although I had no idea what it could have been. I flung off my covers and ran down the hall looking for her. After a step or two, understanding reached my ears, as I heard a thunderous heaving coming from the bathroom. What followed, well, let's just say it brought to mind both Linda Blair and a fire hose.
Which is such a lame segueway into Well Enough Alone, Jennifer Traig's story of her hypochondria. Still, sick is sick, whether the malady is a real stomach flu or an imagined Guillan-Barre syndrome.
Traig's first mental illness, obsessive-compulsive disorder, proved great grist for her writerly impulses. She has penned several "How-to" craft books, putting to good use her restless energy and empty orange juice containers. Her first memoir, Devil in the Details, gave us our first glimpse into her mind as she details her girlhood, driven to distraction, counting, praying, and washing. From my perspective, Traig is saner than a lot of us. She has an endless humor and an unending generosity with herself as she looks at her mental illness in a way that is refreshingly and unflinchingly honest without being the least bit whiny.

Jennifer's story continues in Well Enough Alone. This quirky memoir examines her hypochondria, enriching the narrative by giving us a wealth of fascinating information about the history of this condition, as well as by detailing many of the ways it manifests. Each chapter begins with a black and white reproduction of a grotesque disease of yesteryear, usually dermatological and disgusting, as if to say: this is what I was convinced I suffered from today! Never has mental illness been so funny. Traig includes an appendix with headings such as: Handy Phrases for the Hypochondriac Traveler as Translated Somewhat Unreliably on my Computer, Ten Horrible Diseases and the Chances You Already Have One of Them, and a Fruit/Tumor Comparison Chart.

So, you might ask, where are all the Jewishly-related books I promised to review? I think of this memoir as a Jewish book because there are so many Jewish hypochondriacs! One might suspect in is in the genes. Honestly, I can't think of any of my Jewish friends (and I don't exclude myself from this group) who doesn't have an Aunt Goldie or Uncle Moshe who, despite having a lot of worry and a dressing table full of prescription bottles, has nothing really wrong with them.
The best part of Well Enough Alone is the happy ending, where, once on Prozac, Traig's symptoms go away and she meets her intended, ending up not alone. Couldn't have happened to a nicer author.
Gotta go. I'm expecting a call from my doctor about this rash on my forearm that looks suspiciously like leprosy....

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sum, by David Eagleton

David Eagleton has a webpage,, that explains the underlying principle of this strange bird of a book. Eagleton writes that a possibilian is someone who accepts that our humanity imposes limitation on our ability to understand the universe, takes the position that any way we construct to understand the universe is basically a made-up story, and is willing to entertain all possibilities.

Working within this premise, Eagleton, a neuroscientist, writes forty vignettes, each one exploring a different possibility of what might happen after we die and how that particular narrative speaks to what our existence on earth means. Eagleton is a writer with a gargantuan imagination. Most, if not all of these possibilities seemed completely outlandish, the equivalent of a Dr. Seuss afterlife story. But then again, who knows?

Sum is not for everybody. It is not a novel, not non-fiction, and not even sci-fi, but more of a manifesto of the Possibilian mindset. But if you are a "what if?" kind of person, or a sci-fi lover, or like me, just extremely curious, Sum might be a stepping stone for considering new possibilities of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.

It's all about questions. Sum is, at its core, one big question. For those of us preparing for the upcoming Passover Seders, questions come to the forefront: first and foremost, the four questions, but also the myriad questions posed and answered by various rabbis in the Haggadah. I never thought about the importance of questions in the Seder as a whole. Below is the thought-provoking link that explores this topic.

Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

I remember not wanting to come to the end of Ferris' first book, "And Then We Came to the End". Using the unusual first-person plural as his narrator's voice he chronicled the ins and outs of a group of people who worked together in an office, and with humor and honesty, chronicled how they projected their "issues" onto the objects and people in their work lives.

So how does an author follow up on a first book with such an original, wry voice? Unnamed did not disappoint. I knew nothing about the plot when I began listening to the audiobook, and I so was riveted I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. That element of complete surprise brought a delicious suspense. (By the way, I highly recommend the audio version, narrated by Ferris and concluded with an author interview.) So, be forewarned. I'm going to include a brief synopsis in the next paragraph. If you're one of those people who has a tiny issue with control (as opposed to my not-so-tiny control issues) and reads the last few pages of a new book first because you can't stand the suspense, then by all means, read on. On the other hand, if you would rather enter the book clueless (which is generally how I face the world) then skip over the next paragraph and resume reading at the asterisk.

Tim Farnsworth is a successful attorney, married, with daughter. His life is great except for one little thing. He has this, um, condition. Is it psychological or physical in its etiology? No one knows, and Tim has consulted with the best. This condition comes on out of the blue, and when it strikes, causes him to walk. He walks way past the point of exhaustion, to places far away, finally collapsing into a deep sleep. Upon awakening he calls his wife to help get him home. Despite tests and treatments, conventional and alternative, nothing helps. As Ferris delves into the story we get to see how this condition effects Tim's marriage, daughter and work. As the unnamed condition takes its toll, Tim eventually loses his mind, either as a direct result of his illness or because of how it has affected his life. We see him disheveled and homeless. Ferris perfectly captured how every "invisible" homeless person has a "before-story", a life that preceded the time they lost everything.

* Okay. It's safe to read! As in his first novel, Ferris captures the nuances of his characters and the how the relationships play out brilliantly. A minor complaint: The only parts of this book that didn't work for me were a few of the side branches of the story. Some of these built in suspense, but ended up going in unexpected directions and for the most part fizzled out. Maybe there was something artistically Ferris was doing that eluded me. Still, whatever the author's intent, the book was worth those few minor question marks. I think you'll love Unnamed.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Passing Strange, by Martha Sandweiss

I can't tell you how intrigued I was to learn about Passing Strange. It's the true story of Clarence King, a white man in the late 1800s, who marries an African-American woman. Already I wanted to know more. But here's the crazy part: during his marriage, Clarence led a double life, "passing", pretending, to be a black man. His wife, his children and the community in which they all lived knew King as James Todd, an African-American who worked as a Pullman Porter. Meanwhile, he hid his marriage and biracial children from his family of origin and the white community at large, where he worked as a geologist.

I had immersed myself in the history of the African-American Lacks family featured in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", so I was ready and eager to get the scoop on this peculiar story of race in America. Even without reading, I knew that "passing" usually refers to non-whites pretending to be white so as to gain social and financial advantages that have historically been conferred to whites. Given this, why did King pretend to be black? This had all the makings of a thrilling read.

Unfortunately, Sandweiss approached this tale like a high school history teacher, (at least the ones from my high school). She included reams and reams of insignificant facts, making the mistake that because these things had happened that they were automatically interesting. I'm not sure how this potentially riveting story might have been crafted differently so as to come to life, I just wish that it had. It might have worked better as historical fiction. But that shouldn't have been necessary. There was enough drama, subterfuge and intrigue already within the story that it shouldn't have needed to be "doctored up."

One of the few sections that held my interest spoke to the late 1800s trend of "slumming", of well-off whites touring poor black neighborhoods. This was one of the ways that King's attraction to black culture was piqued. This brought to mind the recent story about a tour company in L.A. that takes tourists, safari-like, on buses through dangerous, gang-ruled neighborhoods.

Sandweiss also spoke to the historical belief that even one drop of "black blood" rendered a person black. This was how the white-skinned King was able to convince his wife that he was black. This, of course, brought to mind the Nazi edicts on Jewish heritage.

I would pass on Passing Strange. A recent article in Salon proved a more thought provoking introduction into racial history in America. Mo'nique is, by far, the most fascinating character in the Disneyland-plasticness of Hollywood and her performance in "Precious" was the truest thing I've ever seen. Her Oscar acceptance speech referenced Hattie McDaniel, the black actress from Gone With the Wind, who was the first ever African-American to be allowed into the Oscar ceremony in any capacity other than server. Read Kate Harding's informative observations on our country's struggle with racism as she comments on Mo'Nique's speech via the link below.

In defense of Mo'Nique's Oscar speech

Monday, March 15, 2010

Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, I am one of the legions of fans of Gilbert's first best-seller, Eat, Pray, Love. But I was wary when I heard the "sequel" was coming out, afraid that it would be next to impossible for Gilbert to recreate what came together so brilliantly there. I worried she could never possibly capture the sheer exuberance and commonality of the we're-in-this-together-as-I-try-to-find-myself of the original. I feared Committed would taint the brand and be a cheaper, paler imitation of Eat, Pray, Love, much the same way every Rocky movie with a roman numeral sucked a little air out of the first.

But it didn't. As in Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert's voice is congenial and companionable; she's every woman's best girlfriend: understanding, intelligent, forgiving and loyal to a fault. Eat, Pray, Love leaves off as Gilbert finds love with a much older, divorced Brazilian and they decide to forge a life together. Then God, or rather Homeland Security, laughs at their plans, and tosses Fillipe out of the country unless Gilbert agrees to make an honest man out of him. Committed, like Eat, Pray, Love, is a little of everything: part journal, part amalgam of anthropological studies and part travelogue, all spackled together with big swathes of self-analysis. She slices and dices and dishes on every past, present or possible aspect of marriage, and then relates these examinations to her own life. She's a bit of an over-thinker, a woman after my own heart.
Whether or not you appreciate the ins and outs and the extreme analysis of her investigations without and within, you gotta admit she is a fine writer. In Committed, Gilbert weaves narrative and essay into a book that compels, educates, and is really fun to read. It's like listening to your chattiest best friend go on and on, but unlike most of us, amidst the chattiness, she actually makes headway and reaches a conclusion. I learned along with her, and loved it every step of the way.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

It has been a really long time since a novel swept me off my feet, leaving me breathless. Yes, this was one of those books -- one that left me conflicted because I knew that each page I so eagerly turned brought me closer to the end. And I did not want it to end!

Colum McCann was recently interviewed in The Writer's Chronicle by Indy's own Andrew Scott. Here he responds to Scott's question about how he creates sympathetic characters: "Really, I want for my characters to be honest. That means complication. Because nothing is simple, not even simplicity." It is McCann's richly drawn characters, captured with such complicated simplicity, that propel the amazing twists and turns in this novel and bring this work such electricity.

The book begins with a scene of tightrope walker Phillipe Petit as he traverses the distance between the World Trade Center towers. As the crowd gathers, we see the buzzing mass of street life come into focus as they realize, with astonishment and awe, what is taking place above their heads. From here, the story branches off into several separate stories, each one intersecting with the others, either through a common character, or some cleverly placed prop on the stage of one story that ties in with another.

The story with the most compelling characters was the one that featured a mother-daughter pair of prostitutes, Tillie and Jazzlyn. What stays with me still is the humanity, depth and humor with which McCann drew these characters, ones whose lives would not ordinarily inspire such a sense of commonality and compassion. Their tale interweaves, in a knocks-your-socks-off, yet completely believable way, with several other characters' stories. It brought to mind all those "coincidences", the times we find our own stories intersecting with others on and off throughout our lives. (Did I ever tell you the time I bumped into an old boyfriend from St. Louis, one I hadn't seen in years, at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem?)

McCann's novel brings to mind the experience of standing in front of one of the big canvas impressionist masterpieces in The Art Institute of Chicago. As your eyes pour over the broad expanse you might catch swipes of color, or certain curves, that are echoed throughout the piece; those purposeful touches can be so subtle that if you had not slowed down and payed close attention you might have missed them altogether. It is these thoughtful details, each one seemingly insignificant on its own, that adds depth to the artistry that makes up the whole of the masterpiece.

Here's something new. An experiment, a link to a fascinating article from last week's about the new book by David Shields, "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto" in which Shields proclaims the novel is dead. Seemed provocative to include this in a review of one of the best novels I've read in a long time. Let's hope I've mastered the technology and this link takes you there.
RIP: The novel

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Stockett's story takes place in 1950s Jackson Mississippi, focusing on a group of white woman and the African-American women they employ as household help. The Help will resonate with anyone who is of a certain age and has spent time in the south. Stockett captures the dialogue, mannerisms, and evokes the feel for that time in history, in those types of homes, in that part of the country beautifully.

I was jazzed to read this book. You really can't go anywhere these days without hearing someone wax poetic about it. It's more than a best-seller; there's a buzz; it's a sensation.

I loved Stockett's warm tone and humorous touches. Three characters took turns narrating the story and their voices sounded true and honest. But in the end, couldn't shake off a vague feeling of disappointment. In general, the characters felt one-dimensional. The was Skeeter, the brainy career-girl with "inner-beauty." Then there was the villain, Hilly, who came off more like a cartoon bad-guy (I guess that should be bad-girl.) Characters are made all the more real by writers who can pull off showing us the bad sides of the good guys, and the good sides of the bad guys. There is a premise within that a book titled The Help is being written collaboratively by the African-American maids and the brainy career girl, and this seemed too carefully orchestrated and contrived. With such great hype this book could have been so much more. Still, it's fun. It's easy. It's a great beach read. To be honest, though, I was hoping for more.

Next week: Committed, and The Gate at the Stairs, and more!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Blood Matters, by Masha Gessen

A few years ago my cousin called, urging me to get tested for the BRCA gene mutation that she and two of her sisters had tested positive for. At the time, my sister-in-law, who had long since tested positive for two of the three known BRCA mutations, was dying. It felt like BRCA mutations were all around me, destroying everyone I loved.

It seems only fitting to review Blood Matters right after The Immortal Life of Henrietta Sacks. Both of these books mix detailed, scholarly scientific information with a compelling narrative. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks the author writes herself in as character, but in a detached way, as an objective facilitator and recorder of the events. In Blood Matters Masha Gessen immerses herself fully, and writes, memoir-like, of a story that begins with the discovery that she has tested positive for one of the BRCA gene mutations. So, now what? Well, there are agonizing decisions that Gessen is forced into making. To inform these decisions she does deep research into all aspects of this new frontier of genetic testing and the burgeoning information on genetically inherited diseases, and we get to learn along with her.

Masha Gessen is an interesting, off-beat character, a Russian-born nominally Jewish lesbian, so that she includes intimate details about her personal life makes her superb writing even more compelling and memorable. It's a brave new world out there. The best and only way I know to navigate it is to get all the information you possibly can. Read this book.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Last night The Writers' Center brought Rebecca Skloot to the Carmel Public Library. She spoke about her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the ten years she spent researching the story of HeLa cells and the family of the woman from which they were cultured. She spoke about how, as she delved further into the story, she unwittingly and reluctantly became an integral character in her book.

The author began by giving us basic information we needed to understand the story. HeLa cells were the first cells able to be cultured and sustain growth; until then all cultured cells were short-lived. The cells were originally sliced -- without informed consent -- from a cervical cancer tumor that grew in Henrietta Lacks, a poor, African-American woman who lived in Baltimore. When it was discovered that the cells were virtually indestructible, forever growing, they began to be mass-produced and shipped all over the country, finally giving scientists a way to experiment on cells outside of the body and ushering in a new frontier in scientific research. The cells played an integral part in the development of the polio vaccine, were the first cells to have their genes mapped, and were instrumental in the development of countless life-saving drugs.

This book is non-fiction but it reads like a novel, three narratives braided into a whole. Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family; she delves deep into the astounding contribution Henrietta's cells made to scientific research; and she describes her relationship with Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, as they search together to uncover information about the cells.

In explaining why this particular topic captured her interest, Rebecca Skloot told of how as a sixteen-year old, she saw her father take part in a controversial medical study. It was fascinating to connect the dots backwards through time and picture her as an impressionable teenage girl who would one day tell such an important story.

At the end of her talk the author explained how she structured of her book, which bounces back and forth through time. She said she read lots of novels with disjointed chronologies to get a feel for this structure, but in the end found a template in the movie "The Hurricane". She ended up storybooking the movie on color-coded index cards and then arranged similar parts of her book right on top.

I'm so glad I read this book -- it's an important story -- but I must admit that I found of the science tedious. There is just so much information in there! Then again, so much of what I cared about in the book didn't have to do with science or the history of medical experimentation. I loved reading about the Lacks family history, all the way back to the tobacco farming slaves who were Henrietta's ancestors. Along with all the science, this was the story of the lives of the Lacks family who, despite their strange brush with posterity, struggled and endured great hardship. Their story is what stayed with me.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Stuff White People Like, by Christian Lander

Four years ago we brought home a puppy, a handful of black fluff my kids insisted on naming Mischief. Right away I was worried. Would the puppy grow into his name? Does a name form what is inside? I tried to steer them towards another name. I begged them to pick another name. But they would not budge. Sure enough, my fear became reality and the puppy did indeed become mischievous. Mischief became the dog who really does eat the kids' homework - and shoes, pencils, remotes, and the occasional razor. Our dog so perfectly embodies his name that I got to thinking about titles.

The title of a book doesn't always give you a window into what lies inside, but the title of this hilarious book, "Stuff White People Like", says it all. Christian Lander holds the light up to us middle class white folk, and in each of the book's 150 mini-chapters he discusses a different identifying trait of the typical white person. I found myself over these pages! From the more obvious "Coffee" to the more obscure "Noam Comsky" Lander nailed us "white people". Yoga! David Sedaris! Farmer's Markets! Japan! Eating Outside! Of course, the essence of stereotypes it that, although they don't hold true across the board, at their core there is a seed of truth. Lander captures many truths about contemporary culture clearly in these 150 "snapshots".

I remember toting this book around to my oldest kid's soccer games. Giving in to my ever present impulse to share books I love, (hence this blog!), whenever I found myself chatting with other moms, I held out this gem, introducing it. The looks on the other moms' faces! You might have thought I was trying to interest them in a copy of Mein Kampf.

Try it! It's fun and light and made me take a look at myself. So many of the chapters described me that I realized I had been deluded, thinking my tastes were unique and informed solely by my own individual DNA, instead of acquiring them through cultural influences, absorbing the herd mentality around me. My kids love this book, too. My son insisted on giving me the test at the back of the book: How White Are You? I was comforted by the fact that I hadn't bought into all 150 cultural stereotypes and scored only 83 out of the 150 possible signifiers of whiteness. Not to make it all anthropological and serious. It's just fun. But it's fun and funny because it's so true.

For a more scholarly take on race see Salon's article on Nell Painter's new book,

"The History of White People": What it means to be white

This week: Reviews on The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, who will be speaking at the Carmel Public Library tonight.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, by Ayelet Waldman

I wanted to hate this book. To be honest, there has always been something about Ayelet Waldman that gets under my skin. It started with her essay, years ago, in the New York Times, that told of how, even after years of marriage, her sex life with her husband remains supercharged, and how she loves him more than her four children. Maybe my beef with Ms. Waldman, on behalf of the rest of us who are "married with children", with sex lives not quite as, um, robust as hers, is simply that I'm the teeniest bit jealous.

Ayelet Waldman is shocking. She is completely fearless. She speaks of losing her virginity at a young age and of all the sexual experiences that followed. She confesses to suffering from bipolar illness. We read of her agonizing decision to have an abortion in the face of an abnormal result on a prenatal genetic test. Ayelet Waldman dishes with an unapologetic assuredness.

Still, I have to hand it to her. There's much more than just salacious shock value in these pages. She can write and she can tell a great story and I found myself identifying with her as she shines the light on her failings as a mother. She begins with a broad brush, showing how becoming a mother changed her, as it does every woman, so fundamentally. She laments that we are so quick to rush to judgment, to give other women demerits on motherhood's scorecard. She perfectly captures the unwavering stridency found in some among us who cling to certain precepts of mothering, such as breastfeeding, or attachment parenting, with a religious fervor. She beautifully shows, through her own experience, how motherhood brings our own childhoods back to us, crashing down all around.

Other essays delve into narrower, more mundane topics, such as working mothers, and housecleaning duties, but are always told through the lens of her own experience, with humor and humility.

At the end, I guess my only real beef with Ayelet Waldman is that at times I found the attention to detail that makes her sentences so rich and her essays so thoughtful backfired. Although many of her "by the way" topics were relegated to footnote status, her rants on non-magnetic frig doors and the proper way to load a dishwasher sounded glib, and took away from the honest reflection of the rest of the material.

Overall, though, I have to admit I loved this book. Waldman may be the girl we resent because we wish we could be true to ourselves the way she is so true to herself. Maybe she shares too much, but I found her extreme brand of honesty refreshing. In being so unabashedly herself, she leveled the playing field, making it okay for the rest of us to do the same. The essays in Bad Mother brought to the forefront aspects of being female and this all-encompassing role of mother that I hadn't ever found words to describe, and for that I am grateful.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A.J. Jacobs speaks on The Year of Living Biblically

I love to hear authors speak, especially when their topic involves spirituality or religion, so although I hadn't read AJ Jacob's book, The Year of Living Biblically, when I heard he was coming to town my interest was piqued. Jacobs also wrote The Know-It-All, a book that chronicles his reading the entire encyclopedia, so I liked him already, picturing him as someone like me - nerdy, and perhaps just the slightest bit obsessive. Then I read that the author was scheduled to speak at St. Luke's Church, during Lent, and I was more than a little confused. I thought I had this guy pegged, and that with a name like Jacobs and a book about the bible, he would be a nice Jewish boy. So why was St. Lukes bringing him in? And during Lent? I questioned my usually keen "Jewdar."

When he walked on stage, though, all doubts were put aside. Definitely nice Jewish boy. So, obviously, as the couple of hundred people in St. Lukes last night proved, there is a wide audience for the story of how a nice (secular) Jewish boy tried to follow the letter of biblical law for one year.

Jacobs described himself as a nominal Jew, "a Jew in the way that The Olive Garden is Italian." Before addressing The Year of Living Biblically, he spoke about some of the quirky subjects he has written about in the past and how, he immerses himself in them completely. He said he really enjoyed the time he spent "Outsourcing My Life", hiring help to make his phone calls, and to read bedtime stories to his children. He did not, however, enjoy the time he spent practicing "Radical Honesty", when he not only had to answer every question honestly, but also had to say every single thought he had out loud. He subtitled this particular story, "I think you are fat."

But the story that most profoundly affected his life was The Year of Living Biblically. That year brought many changes to his life. He said he worked to curb his own gossiping and coveting that is standard operating procedure in his New York media circles, and that he experienced a moral makeover. He honored the Sabbath, and by having that one day of rest his life changed. He commented that one of the basic tenets of Judaism, the one that proclaims that your actions should come first, and that your belief, if not already present, will follow, was very true for him. Deed leads to creed, the outer effects the inner. He discovered that many of the obscure rules of the bible ended up having profound meaning for him.

Jacobs told us that what he learned during his biblical year could be summed up in five basic lessons:
1) Give thanks. Focus on being grateful for the hundreds of things that go right during the day rather than the few that go wrong.
2) Have reverence. Jacobs no longer calls himself an agnostic, but a reverent agnostic, believing in the sacredness in our lives.
3) Thou shalt not stereotype. He said that in his investigations he came to understand that his monolithic view of Evangelical Christians no longer held and that he came to appreciate many of the evangelicals he met.
4) Don't take the bible literally, but do take it seriously.
5) Thou shalt pick and choose. Ironically, although the task he set forth to accomplish during his biblical year was to fulfill every letter of the law, he found this impractical and virtually impossible, and defended the concept of "cafeteria religion."

The changes in Jacobs' life that came from writing The Year of Living Biblically have outlasted the year of research he put into it. He happily told us that he and his wife now send their children to a Jewish school and that he continues to try to observe the Shabbat.

Yesterday brought something new and unexpected - a visit to a church during Lent where I heard another Jew speak - to an audience I can only presume was for the most part Christian - of his unexpected reconnection with Judaism.

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my all-time favorite authors. She writes big books, books that reach out covering dense and complicated subjects. Her books often bring to mind the phrase "The Personal is the Political," as the sweep of her big stories tells a tale through the eyes of finely honed, memorable characters. Most of my reader-friends hold out The Poisonwood Bible as Kingsolver's best-pick, though my special love is The Prodigal Summer. I finished both those novels with a little shiver. They so captivated me I remember blinking and trying to reorient myself in the present. So it pains me so to say this, but The Lacuna, just didn't, as one of my good friends likes to say, work for me. At all.

The protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, tells the story of his life through journal entries that are read by his long-time secretary, Violet Brown. Occasionally Violet steps in to provide details that are missing from the diaries. The theme of a lacuna, its dual definition as both a gap in an academic work and as a water-filled cave is threaded throughout the book. Harrison's early years in Mexico tell of his involvement with the big movers and shakers of that time: Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Lev Trotsky. This part of the story -- though I was glad to learn about it and to fill in some of the lacunas in my own education -- seemed kind of "Forest Gumpy" to me, and not in the fresh, surprising way of that movie, but in a contrived, not so believable way. As Shepherd moves to the U.S., we see him become a best-selling writer who gets caught up in the anti-communist hysteria of the time.

There were a few breathtaking passages throughout the book, especially in the beginning where Kingsolver describes Harrison as a boy in the lush, colorful Mexican countryside. But it was only later, in the descriptions of how Harrison as an adult battles with panic, and of his lonely life as a closet homosexual that I felt I knew anything at all about his inner life. Aside from these bits of compelling insight into his character, I felt a disconnect from him throughout.

The pacing of this book didn't help with my sense of remove. It was way too long, and at each of the turning points within the plot, I never knew enough of how what had happened affected Harrison.

I'm trying to finish The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks before Monday, when the author, Rebecca Skloot, will be in town to speak (Carmel Library, 7pm), but for tomorrow's review: Bad Mother, by Ayelet Waldman.