Book Eleven: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

Huh. I suppose I enjoyed this. Great premise, pretty good writing, science intermixed with ethics and a fascinating human story. And yet, on finishing it, something just didn't sit right with me. Maybe because the Afterward, which discusses bioethics and medical laws, contains the most compelling information? And that had me wondering why that wasn't up front and addressed in the bulk of the book. It just seemed like all the author's efforts to represent the Lacks family well after decades of mistreatment eclipsed her ability to tell the story with any kind of objectivity. And that made me realize that the main character in her story wasn't Henrietta or even her daughter Deborah, but Rebecca Skloot herself. Because the story she ends up telling is the story of how she decides to tell the story and how she tracks down the Lacks family and how she gets involved in their journey and how she travels with Deborah to do research for the book and find out more about her mother and sister and how she feels about the issues. Or maybe her point is that you can't tell a story like this and completely ignore the human element. Though which human element we are supposed to focus on seems a bit blurred. I'm not sure if I should let that bother me or get in the way of the issues it had me thinking about or the things I learned. And yet, it's there, a little fly buzzing in the back of my brain that just won't go away.

Book Ten: The Big Rock Candy Mountain

The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

I feel so bad when I gush over a book. I think a critical eye can be so much more interesting than one tainted by adoration. But I just cannot say a bad word about this novel. Every bit of it is exactly what writing should be. Now, this is truly effortless writing (I'm looking at you, Patti Smith): the kind that appears effortless so much so that you don't even notice the words coming off the page. They just are and the story just is and then, before you know it, you realize that you are enjoying every minute of it. Yeah yeah, gush gush gush. But honestly, we all know that Wallace Stegner is a genius. We've all read Angle of Repose (right? right??) and we all say he's one of our favorite writers. But for the best of reasons because he just is.

This is essentially an autobiography of Stegner's own life. Which could be dangerous territory (this was written less than 10 years after his father died, when he was still a young man and a young writer), but he turns it into something magical. The story starts with his young parents, running from their own tragedy-filled childhoods and finding each other in a lonely North Dakota down, and even though they are so very obviously wrong for each other they are sadly attracted to each other. Here's the point where you want to yell out to young Elsa, "Run! Leave! Do NOT marry this man! This is a VERY BAD idea!" But Elsa does not listen to you, and instead marries Bo Mason and follows him from town to town, job to job, one scheme to another for the rest of their unfortunate lives. They have two sons and as they grow up we start to see the story from their perspectives, too. And that's the beauty of the book. It's told in the third person, and yet you get the perspective of each of the family members, so your sympathies are constantly shifting. Even Bo, who is clearly a terrible father, feels sympathetic at times. Like, he's doing the best he can. And then, when we see Elsa's perspective, we realize again that his best isn't very good at all.

The story is at times thrilling and nail-biting, at times slowly ponderous and gorgeous, at times so sad I may just have sat reading while bawling violently (or that just might be the pregnancy hormones). But it was never dull. Wallace Stegner, you are my hero.

Book Nine: The Source

The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family, Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian

This is the picture that got me to read this book.

I saw it and thought, "I have got to read about these people!" I just can't resist a load of pregnant ladies in hippie garb gathered around a Rolls Royce. Who can't?! I realized mid-book, that I unintentionally picked this up right after Just Kids, which essentially chronicles a different music scene happening more or less at the same time on the other side of the country. With an entirely different vibe. And yeah, this one is less about music and the arts and the "Earth Trip" and more about the story of what some call a cult, told from the perspective of former family members.

So, there's this guy. Jim Baker. With a checkered past that includes some armed robberies and killing two men with just the power of his two hands, and a professed war hero, judo master, and archery champion. He becomes a successful restauranteur in Los Angeles, and his third endeavor, a vegetarian restaurant on Sunset Boulevard called The Source leads him have a dramatic yogic conversion. And then the whole things snowballs and next thing you know, he's the leader of a cult! Or rather, a bunch of hippies feel drawn to him and his powerful energy, so he starts leading morning meditations and then decides that everyone needs to live together as a family. And then he's Father Yod (and later, Ya Ho Wha) the leader of a cult! The rest/bulk of the book talks about the Family's journey, both spiritually and physically, as we see the evolution of the Family and watch them move from LA to Hawaii to San Francisco and back to Hawaii again. And really, it's all kind of fascinating. In the most kooky and insane way. Because, honestly, these people aren't writers, so it reads as this scattered, loony tale of pseudo-religion and Sacred Herb (yes, that herb) and the Age of Aquarius and polygamy and megalomania (in my opinion, mind you) and psychedelic music. Isis Aquarian, the family's official record keeper, writes the majority of the text, but it's healthily interspersed with first-person accounts by other family members. Most are flattering of Father Yod and the experience of being a member of the Family, and some are slightly critical. And some of it made me laugh out loud at the pure craziness. But, for someone who snorted her way through half of this book, I felt oddly touched by the last few pages. Because it felt so honest and true, and even though these might not be things that I personally believe in, I am not such a monster that I can't recognize that everyone has their own way of looking for meaning and experiencing life, and these people truly found beauty and inspiration through this experience. And if no one got hurt (well, just a couple of people died who probably shouldn't have), then who am I to judge?

But I can judge the music, which is featured on the accompanying CD, and I feel good about saying that it's truly, truly terrible. Seriously, don't listen to this, whatever you do. Yipes.

The 24-Hour Read-a-Thon

Yup, I'm insane. I just signed up for another round of Dewey's 24-Hour Read-a-Thon. And at that point (Saturday, April 9th) I will be nearly 7 months pregnant. Though sleeping now is getting pretty uncomfortable, so maybe that will keep me up reading all night? But even if I only manage 12 hours of reading, I will consider that a success. So no pressure this time around. I honestly had a great time last October, and that's really what's motivating my participation again.

You should sign up, too!

Book Eight: Just Kids

Just Kids, Patti Smith

I was pretty excited to read this, but now I don't remember why. I don't have any specific interest in Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe, but I suppose I'd heard it was a good book. And it's fine. But I kept being reminded in my lack of interest in these people and their scene. I'm certainly not going to accuse her of name dropping, since I have no doubt as to the truth of her story, but it often feels like that. Like, hey, here I am talking to Jimi Hendrix and here I am having an affair with Sam Shepard and here I am hanging out at the Chelsea with Janis Joplin and so on. Again, not necessarily a problem, but totally not my scene. I am just one of those squares who find the whole New York arts scene/Jim Morrison worship/Studio 54 hangers-on/drug-induced haze a bit tedious.

But Patti Smith's writing is pretty effortless, and by that I mean it feels like she put very little effort into writing this book. Sometimes that means that there are moments are pure beauty that rise out of the simplicity, and other times it feels like it needed some serious editing.