Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Incredible! In-freakin'-credible! Rebecca Skloot's tale of Henrietta Lacks reads like a mystery, a thriller, and in a way a love story.

The mystery: how could a woman's cancerous cells be harvested and used for medical research without her knowledge? Skloot shows us how the law changed since the early 1950s when the white medical community experimented on black and Hispanic patients without telling them what was happening. Take an undereducated populace without the rights the majority enjoyed, and the possibility of an Island of Dr. Moreau rises. Skloot rightly points out that laws now protect patients' rights, but we still don't "own" any medical tissues removed from our bodies.

The thriller: how can one woman's harvested cells help develop treatments from such things as AIDS? A doctor at Johns Hopkins harvested cells, sent them to another doctor who cultured them in a lab and named them HeLa. The family had no idea about the initial cell removal, the cells' use in medical research, who profited, who didn't. All the family knew was that they didn't profit. No evil spies ran around trying to steal the cells. Anyone can order them through the Internet for very little money. The family thought they had been wronged but didn't have the means to prove it. One thing they wanted was acknowledgment of their mother's and grandmother's real name. Misidentified for decades, the woman from whom the HeLa cells were cultured is Henrietta Lacks. No other name is right.

The love story: when Skloot set out to right the wrong, she eventually joined forces with Henrietta's daughter Dorothy to uncover the whole story. This is a love-hate relationship. Dorothy doesn't fully trust this young white woman who's poking around in her family's past. Skloot wins her over, but the relationship is never without tension. Will Dorothy drop Skloot? And why? Like many of our friendships, we don't always trust completely, but we can relate with respect and friendship. At times, Dorothy trusts Skloot; at times she doesn't. But Skloot never stops trying to tell the story.

This is a book you can't put down. Well written, fast paced, it reads more like a novel than a scientific biography. Skloot put her money where her mouth is: she established a scholarship fund for the offspring of Henrietta Lacks. The rest of us benefit from the medical research done using her immortal cells.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Writing from the Heart to Move the Heart

How does one move the heart in fiction? One way is to create memorable characters that we care about. Characters who face conflict, find a way to resolve the conflict, and grow through the experience.

I recently picked up Roger Rosenblatt's Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. Rosenblatt speaks about digging deep into ourselves to reach the emotions and memories that can turn a good phrase into a memorable phrase. As a writer, I am always looking for, and not always finding, le mot juste. If we are not honest about our own emotions and we write from that lack of honesty, then I think we are cheating our readers.

I just finished several books by a long-time best seller. Why? Because he is a groundbreaker in using a specific theme that I want to exploit for Max 3. He remains anonymous, because in the last two books I read, I didn't give a damn about the protagonist. One's anger management problems were so atrocious that I wanted to kill him off myself. The other protagonist whined his way through 300+ pages.

I got to thinking about why I was disappointed. I've read this writer for years and have liked many of his works. In these last two, he abandoned much of why I read him in the first place.

1. Limited character development, not likeable and didn't grow. He plopped them on page one and didn't do much with them afterwards.
2. Evil bad guys so shallow that you could drive a truck through their wickedness, yet the main characters never saw through them. And in one book, a main character is romatically involved with one of the evil people. He drops out of the story 100 pages before the end. She never knows he's behind the attacks on her ex-husband. Come on.
3. Red herrings left to rot on plates on the table.

I'm done reading this writer. I know what not to do. I know I can continue with the themes I've set out for Max 3. I know I need an antagonist who is flawed and with whom the reader can at least empathize. I need to maintain the likeability of Mad Max. If no one likes her, why bother?

Good lessons from Rosenblatt applied to my "light" reading. Thanks, Mr. Rosenblatt. You are making me a better reader and a better writer.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Enslaved by Ducks

I'll admit it. I probably wouldn't have picked up Bob Tarte's Enslaved by Ducks, but when a friend gave it to my husband for his birthday, I decided to read it. I found myself howling at the antics Bob and his wife experienced as they acquired bird after bird.

The growth of the menagerie comes about almost by accident. When Bob and his wife Linda move to a farmhouse in Michigan, it seems logical that they will have a pet. Where I would probably start with a dog or cat, they started with a bunny they name Binky, who transformed their house into an "indoor petting zoo." Other rabbits follow, each with its own personality, which Tate describes in howlingly funny detail.

Next comes the first of the birds. Chester, the canary, is innocuous enough, but when Bob and Linda add Ollie, a tyrannical pocket parrot that demands constant attention when anyone is in the same room with him, I wondered if they had lost their minds.

Not to be outdone, more birds arrive: ducks, both domestic and wild, geese and turkeys. Even a flock of abandoned starlings that have to be dropper-fed every two hours around the clock. With each new addition, Tarte tells us how they find and decide to adopt the bird, how it fit or didn't fit with other birds in the growing flock, which birds needed to be isolated so that they wouldn't fall prey to jealous brethren, etc.

I wasn't sure I would finish the book, but I found myself wondering what new and probably sociopathic beast would move into the Tarte Michigan farmhouse next. As I neared the end, I remembered an interview in the Washington Post a few years ago. A high-powered lawyer in Washington, D.C. decided to buy a mini-farm out near the Blue Ridge Mountains and raise pygmy goats, the farthest thing from his daily work tasks at a political action committee. When asked why, he said (in today's parlance), "I never get a tweet from the pasture."

Alas, Tarte and his wife get different kinds of tweets all day long from the flock living in their house. Better them than me. I'll stick with one cat, thank you very much.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

If you haven't read Little Bee by Chris Cleave, you're missing a terrific experience. A New York Times best seller, this novel was short-listed for the 2008 Costa Award for Best Novel. It breaks most of the rules agents list on their sites for what makes a novel worthy of representation.

Little Bee is the story of two women whose lives become intertwined through a single act of violence in Nigeria. Sarah, a white English woman, and her husband Andrew try to repair a damaged marriage on a vacation to Nigeria. On a walk along the beach, they meet Little Bee, a girl who was being chased by dogs and armed men.

Two years later, Sarah is back in England, raising her four-year-old son, Charlie, who decides he's Batman. He won't take off his Batman costume, because the "baddies" will win. Little Bee has just been released from a detention center for refugees seeking asylum and makes her way to Sarah's home. Let's just say, the situation becomes complicated when the reunion of the two women opens deep wounds and forces them to confront the blackness within each.

Cleave breaks several "rules" agents insiston: he uses two narrators, both speaking in first person; much of his dialogue is in dialect. Sarah, of course, speaks perfect English. Little Bee sometimes speaks with a Nigerian dialect, sometimes she speaks like Queen Elizabeth, particularly when she feels threatened by authorities.

And Charlie speaks his own language, always to be corrected by his mother. When Little Bee asks Charlie to take off his Batman costume, Charlie replies, "...if I is not in mine costume then I is not Batman."

Cleave maintains unique voices for each of the three main characters. Charlie never speaks correct English; Little Bee sometimes thinks in a Nigerian dialect. All are unique characters, fully rounded and completely sympathetic.

So, why does this novel meet the requirements posted on many agents' web sites? Because it is a literary novel, and most agents do not want to represent literary novels. Thank goodness one did. Little Bee is a book club favorite. It's easy to see why.