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Monday, June 13, 2011

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

This is a somewhat sweet, old fashioned story.  We start out in 1950 with Paul Milliron, a school superintendent charged with the duty of closing down the old one-room schoolhouses out in the countryside of Eastern Montana.  As Paul worries over this onerous task, he flashes back in time to when he was a 13-year-old boy, and just such a schoolhouse meant the world to him.  His mother had died not too long ago, and his father Oliver was now raising Paul and his two brothers on their homestead.  Oliver, overwhelmed with raising his three sons alone and running a dryland ranch,  spies an advertisement in the newspaper.  A housekeeper looking for work has written a witty ad that starts with "Can't cook, won't bite."  They of course hire the writer of this ad, Rose.  Rose is full of surprises, beginning right from the moment she steps off the train, resplendent in a satin dress.  Rose has inexplicably brought along her brother Morrie, who eventually becomes the sole teacher of the one-room schoolhouse.  This book is really the adventure of childhood in the turn-of-the-century West, complete with horse races, revival meetings, Sunday suppers with the family and hunting for Indian arrowheads.  Rose and Morrie bring flash and excitement to the Milliron family, arriving in tandem with Halley's Comet.  Paul is mature for his age and perhaps this is why he's asked to keep secrets that trouble his dreams at night.  He literally learns a new language, helps his Dad navigate being a widow, mentors his younger brothers and comes of age in doing so.  The only parts I thought were overdone were Paul's nightmares; a little would have gone a long way on that front.  But if you want to saddle up and ride back to 1909 Montana, to a simpler place and time, this might be the book for you.   If you end up liking this book or this genre, I also recommend Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck.  Also, the PBS docu/reality series Frontier House (available on netflix).  And, The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure's memoir of trying to understand her childhood obsession with The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.   Finally, for a starker look at life on a Montana dryland ranch (this one is set in the 1940's), Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I could tell you that this book is an historical account of cell culture, but that's too confining, and too boring for some.  It's the story of how a woman unknowingly helped catapult science forward, and save millions and millions of lives.   It's about family and irony and ethics, and it's set in the most modern laboratories in the world of today, and the tobacco fields of Virginia in the Jim Crow era.   Henrietta Lacks is our heroine; a beautiful young Black woman with five children, and a fatally philandering husband.  The promise of work brings Henrietta and her family to the bustling Baltimore of the 1940's, and within the vicinity of Johns Hopkins Medical Center.  Due to Jim Crow era laws, Johns Hopkins was one of the few places African Americans could get medical care, and there our story begins in earnest.  One of the biggest ironies here is that Henrietta's children and grandchildren could not afford medical care or medical insurance.  The author, Rebecca Skloot, spent about 10 years writing this book, and got very involved with Henrietta's surviving family, especially the daughter, Deborah.  One of the other characters in the book that is not so often mentioned in the written reviews is the remarkable and brilliant scientist who discovered the perpetual growth of HeLa cells, George Gey.  He had a true love of science and could have become very rich for his efforts, but all his energy went to proceed ever on with his work, spending his and his wife's own modest incomes to build their laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, and at the end of his life, submitting his own body to torturous experimental cancer treatments.  In the interest of science, he gave away HeLa cells to other scientists and laboratories all over the world, and they were often carried in the breast pockets of airline pilots from one country to another.  The ethics of this book are incredibly complicated and many laws have since been established to protect patients.  These laws grew out of fascinating cases of modern-day patient exploitation that are also encapsulated in this book.  I couldn't believe what I was reading sometimes!  So, you've got everything;  science and family and race and ethics and history and greed and poverty and despair and politics, and love and betrayal of the deepest order.  The author, Rebecca Skloot, has a science background that no doubt helped her write this wildly popular book.  She's a contributing editor for Popular Science Magazine but also writes on other subjects, including food.  This book has been translated into 25 languages and is being made into an HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey.  There are good photos on the amazon page, as well as a great little author video, and I also enjoyed quite a few good podcast interviews on itunes.