Pit Stop – 2016 Reading Challenge 66 Percent

I have 18 books on my 2016 Reading Challenge. Here it is only March, and I’m two-thirds of the way through! To avoid one never-ending post, I’ve split it into thirds. The first part can be found here. Following is the second batch of six.

2. A banned book.

This book came to my attention when I was writing a post for Banned Books Week. Because you can.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, a big thank-you to the ignoramus Tennessee mother who flipped this book onto my radar, by thinking it’s her place to decide not only what her child should read, but everybody else’s child as well. Yeah. Like the author said, gynecology is not pornography. Yeesh.

On to the review:

There’s something here that should piss people off.

As the blurb says, cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951, without her knowledge or permission. Those cells, called HeLa, were cultured to continue division, and sold by the billions in an industry that made many people rich. They served as a kick start for advances in medical science, contributing to the polio vaccine, chemotherapy drugs, research into tuberculosis, salmonella, steroids, AIDS, development of vitamins and hormones, mapping the human genome, so much more. They were used to study the effects of space travel and nuclear bombs on the human body. HeLa cells were a cornerstone of modern laws regarding informed consent and ethics regarding research subjects. Neither Henrietta nor her family saw any gain from these contributions to the bank accounts of others or to the health and well-being of the human race. For twenty years after Henrietta’s death, they didn’t even know about it.

There are big questions about the ethics of using tissue for research unknown to the donors, and “the donors” is just about every single one of us. And I don’t doubt that most people don’t mind their tissues being used for the benefit of everyone with improved medicine. What frosts my cookies is the patenting of these things, which impedes the progress of research and contributes to the high cost of medical procedures, tests, and medications. There is a stark contrast between the billions of dollars in commerce and marketing of the HeLa cells and the fact that the descendants of HeLa herself, Henrietta Lacks, can’t afford health insurance or medical care. If people are expected to be satisfied that their tissues are being used for the greater good, as is the current legal position, then why can’t researchers and developers and marketers be satisfied that their efforts are being used for the greater good?

I see an excellent way to fund a national health care system. Or is it just me?

 5. A Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These are wonderful, wonderful stories.

Welcome to the world of Crosby, Maine, and of Olive Kitteridge, seen through her eyes or through the eyes of someone she has touched, no matter how slightly. Critical, intolerant, proud, devoted, lonely, witness to and bearer of tragedy and grief and hope -she is all these. Interweaving of community, the pitfalls and joys of love, the bafflement that is being human – it’s all here. It makes our own failings and bumps in the road a bit easier to take, when we can see the poetry in them. I am very picky about short stories and I believe the genre is difficult to do well. It is done extraordinarily well here.

And this is what I get for not being much of a television watcher. I only just learned that this book was the basis for an HBO mini-series. If I’d known that when I was putting my 2016 Reading Challenge together, I could have read this for that category and avoided the drivel that was Pretty Little Liars.


7. A book based on a true story.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is exactly the kind of thing I wish I wasn’t too chickenshit to do – just decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, with no experience and only basic preparation, because my life is completely wrecked. (Although there was the time I was frustrated with life and took off barefoot for San Francisco for dinner with a man I barely knew, and almost got knifed on the Embarcadero. I guess that’s close. I learned my lesson: Wear shoes.)

After reading, all I can say is: Wow.

I’ve read so many hateful reviews, I’d like to boil some of it down, to help readers avoid a book that will likely piss them off.

Do not read this book if:

– You are expecting endless flowery descriptions of scenery or detailed backpacking how-to. There is some of that, but this book is about the inner journey as much as the outer journey. A lot of it has nothing to do with the Pacific Crest Trail.

– You expect other people to live according to your idea of what they should do with their own bodies, including having sex or babies.

– You expect someone to make only the mistakes that you find acceptable, or even to view the same things as mistakes, while at the same time you do not grasp that you’ve probably done some things you view as “honest mistakes” that other people would classify as “evil.”

– You have no empathy for grief so deep it utterly consumes you and knocks your whole life off its axis. If that’s the case, you’re probably not going to get it.

– You do not understand that an introspective journey and subsequent memoir are going to be about Self. Look up “introspection.”

I’m glad I hadn’t known this was an Oprah pick, because then I probably wouldn’t have read it, and I would have missed out. I loved this story of a young woman who was reeling from loss and proceeded to cock-up the rest of her life accordingly, eventually leading her to hike the PCT almost on a whim. Frighteningly inexperienced and unprepared, she forges ahead in spite of fear, pain, and self-doubt. She finds resolve, kindness, generosity, friendship, beauty, and resolution as she makes her way through the wilderness of America and the wilderness of her own soul. Strayed’s honesty is both heartbreaking and affirming.

Bonus points for letting me know I’m not the only person who’s ever built a crap cairn.

Double bonus points for the llama.

8. A play.

Cat on a Hot Tin RoofCat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”

This is a story about mendacity, the whole reason Brick is slowly destroying himself no matter how much Maggie the Cat wants him. It’s also about love, desire, facing death, connecting with each other, alcoholism, repressed homosexuality, family, and greed. But it’s mostly about mendacity. Is it more about the lies we tell each other, or the lies we tell ourselves? I can’t decide.

I did notice the use of “should of,” which drives me absolutely bonkers and surprised me, coming from a writer of Tennessee Williams’ stature. Is that supposed to be a vernacular thing? Ugh.

Still and all, I loved it. Late to the party, this is the first time I’ve read a play. It’s an intriguing new way, to me, to see what the writer sees, with stage directions and set descriptions rather than a narrator telling me what’s going on.

11. A book published a century ago.

The Lost ContinentThe Lost Continent by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is about as pulpy as pulp fiction gets, which is a good thing. Written in 1915, before America joined the Great War, it’s a post-apocalyptic story of the desolation of Europe after America self-isolates in WWI, and the subsequent discovery of civilization that has reverted to stereotypical hunter-gatherer.

Kudos to Burroughs for at least trying to portray women with less misogyny. Our busty and beautiful heroine is good with a knife, and a nice nod is given to matriarchy, even though the king still rules and the queen is still a prize to be taken by might. If you consider this was written before women won the vote then it means a bit more, despite the often patronizing tone. The racist attitude is atrocious, but again, context must be considered, kind of like when you read Tom Sawyer.

This is a fast and entertaining he-man read, with the old standard adventure tropes. It is in the public domain and available for free download from Gutenberg, who does an awesome thing by making classics readily available and deserves even a couple bucks if that’s all you can donate.

16. A book by an author you haven’t read yet.

Nineteen MinutesNineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not impressed.

Overuse of similes. However, this is nothing on the level of Alice Sebold (eyes like “ferocious olives”) or Marisha Pessl (men like “idiot iced teas”), so…bearable. Oh, nope. I just read, “[H]e started to move faster, bucking against her like a fish released from a hook onto a dock.” Umm…what? Oh, yeah, baby, flop around on me like a dead fish, ooh, yes, baby, I like it like that. Urrggh. Join the Sebold/Pessl Cringe-Worthy Simile Hall of Fame.

The claim that TV ticker tape didn’t exist until 9/11 is incorrect. I remember watching it as a kid in the 60’s and 70’s. The “crawler” first appeared on The Today Show in January 1952. Contextual errors like that really bug me, especially in the Age of Google when you can get correct information in about two minutes using an Android phone, as I did.

“Alex was not short for Alexandra. ..” but in chapter 1 the bailiff calls “All rise, the Honorable Alexandra Cormier presiding” and in chapter 2 she fills out medical forms with the name Alexandra.

In a small town where everybody knows everybody, why is it such a surprise to the local defense lawyer and his investigator that the shooter had a golden boy older brother who was killed by a drunk driver just before graduation only a year ago?

That’s a small sample. Lots of contradictions and unrealistic passages, like the woman who doesn’t cook stopping to fix eggs and bacon when she’s already late for work, or the defense counsel hired the day of the shooting having no evidential discovery at the preliminary hearing, or the police detective who’s solved every single case he’s ever had. Sophomoric, book-of-the-month treatment of serious issues, including gun ownership, mass shootings, violence in the media, violence in teen relationships, and bullying, with nods given to abortion, adoption, and LGBTQ issues – are we just tossing everything and the kitchen sink in here? Why is 9/11 even in this book? Something else violent and traumatic on a mass level, so let’s just throw that in too? The shooting details are largely lifted straight from Columbine, including the Boy Scout trying to save his mortally wounded teacher and the injured student escaping out the second floor window.

Abandoned. I read as far as I did because, once again, I stranded myself with nothing else to read. Bad, bad self! But now I am home, where I have many, many other books. Buh-bye, Jodi Picoult.

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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