Thursday, January 13, 2011

Left Neglected – Lisa Genova

2011, 336 pages.
Sarah is living a hectic life. She is a vice president of a big company, working around the clock, and a mother of three young children. She and her husband, who also works many hours a week and is never really away from his job, are trying to keep up with mortgages and loans, the price of studying at top universities, living at top neighborhood and owning a vacation home. All for the kids, of course. The kids who see their parents only early in the morning, before the unlucky one of them, whose turn it is to give up the pleasure of driving straight to work, takes them to day care and before-school care, and for a short time before they go to sleep, after eating dinner with the nanny who picks them up from school and day care.
Sarah always has to do more than one thing at a time to keep up with all the responsibility she is given. Eating while talking on the phone with one person and emailing another. But while multitasking sitting at her desk is hard, doing it while driving is also dangerous, as she finds out one day, waking up at a hospital with a brain injury.
She suffers from a syndrome called “Left Neglect”. Her brain ignores the left side of everything, including her own body. The book follows her while finding out the full extent and limitation of her situation, the treatment, and the way she and her family cope with the situation. Her new situation brings her mother back to her life, after many years of problematic relationship following a childhood trauma.
I had very high expectations from this book after enjoying so much her first book, “Still Alice”. Unfortunately I didn’t feel she managed to repeat her big achievement.
The first part of the book describes Sarah’s life before the accident. It is hectic and high-paced, and it didn’t feel original, I felt I read so many descriptions of busy mothers trying to balance career and parenting, like “I don’t know how she does it”. I was also so annoyed by Sarah’s choices and behavior I could not enjoy the reading. I just could not sympathize her using her cell phone while driving or leaving the baby in the car with the engine on while bringing the other kids to school. I never considered doing it even for a minute when I was in similar situation so I just couldn’t relate to her doing so.
After the accident, I think Genova did a good job describing how this rare and strange syndrome feel for the patient, but it was also a little tedious. It could be an interesting chapter in a book about interesting brain syndrome, telling a story of a real patient, but as a fictional story it just wasn’t enough.
The last part of the book, Sarah’s coping with reality after releasing from the hospital, did manage to grab my interest. I was even touched at times by the situations and decisions she had to do. But the plot didn’t seem realistic to me. Things worked out , when they did, too smoothly to feel real. The end, though touching, was predictable, and I guessed it long before, and I felt it lost the power it should have had.
All in all, I don’t think it is a bad book, it was quite interesting in spite of its flaws. But if you are expecting another “Still Alice”, you should re-adjust your expectation to prevent from disappointment.

Monday, January 10, 2011

All Clear – Connie Willis

2010, 656 pages

** Spoiler Alert: contains spoiler to the book “Blackout” **

This is the second half of the story that started in the book “Blackout”. We find Polly, Mike and Eileen where we left them at the end of “Blackout”, trapped in London in the middle of the Blitz, their drops back to Oxford of 2060 do not open, and Polly has a deadline, later during the war she visited for another research, and since she cannot be in two places at the same time, she will die if she doesn’t find a way to come back to 2060 before that.
The book follows Polly, Eileen and Mike trying to find a way out, find other historians with research trips to the same time whose drops may work, and coping with living in London during the Blitz. Polly is working at a department store, Eileen is still in touch with the kids that were evacuated from London and now they are back, including the insufferable Alf and Binnie, whom she can’t wait to get rid of, but finds herself saving them again and again, and Mike looking for the little heroes of the war, like he did in Dunkirk and plans to do in Pearl Harbor, and finds out he has to be one, if he wants to get Polly and Eileen out of the trap, as he promised them. And what about Mr. Dunworthy? Polly knows his first priority is the safety of his Historians in Oxford, and she is sure he will do anything to get them back. And Colin, the teenager who is in Love with Poly, in spite of all her efforts to make him forget her, but now she remembers his promise to come and get her if she gets into trouble – where is he? Will he keep his promise, before it’s too late?
We also follow other historians in other times during the war, and find out how they relate to the three main characters trapped in the Blitz. This is Willis’ 4th book with time travel (after “To Say Nothing of the Dog”, “Doomsday Book”, and “Blackout”, and there’s also the short story “Fire Watch”, closely related to this story), and here she is using the full potential of time travel to create scenes that are fascinating and touching. Reminded me a little the use of time travel in “The Time Traveler’s Wife”. I found myself fascinated to the story, cannot leave the book and can’t wait to find out what happened (but also unwilling to end the book at the same time).
I learned so much about England in WWII in the book, especially all these people who “did their bit” away from the front, with so much courage and determination. The descriptions were so vivid I could feel I am really there. These two books (“Blackout” and “All Clear”) were a real pleasure to read, Connie Willis at her best.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Spin – Robert Charles Wilson

2005, 368 pages.
One night, sometime around our time or in the very near future, the stars disappeared. Tyler witnessed this event when he was 12 years old with his best friends, Jason and Diane. They were the children of a wealthy businessman living in the big house, gifted kids who were going to a private school. He was the son of their housekeeper, living in a small house on their estate, going to a public school. But they were still best friends, and he even started feeling more than that towards Diane, and it seems like these feelings were mutual. But the night when the stars disappeared, by a phenomenon that was later known as “spin”, changed it all.
First we meet Tyler and Diane years later, in a city in south-east Asia, where Tyler is about to go through some kind of mysterious treatment. As one of the treatment’s side effects he goes back to his memory to when it all started, that night when the stars disappeared, and tells the story of what happened to them – and to the world – since then.
The book is filled with scientific ideas, some of them are quiet interesting and intriguing, but when the mystery was solved, for me it wasn’t like “wow” but more like “oh, well.” (a teenager would probably say “whatEVER".) The human story – of what happened to the main characters – unfortunately didn’t have more success in grabbing my interest. I was never really drawn-in, or touched or moved by what was going on.
It was a nice and easy read, full of interesting scientific ideas, but not more than that for me.
It is a first part of a trilogy, the second book “Axis” was published in 2007 and the third is expected this year, but I don’t feel the urge to go on to the next books in the series.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

2010, 345 pages.
When Rebecca Skloot was 16 years old, she heard about the HeLa cells for the first time. She took a biology class in a community college. Her instructor told the class about the sample of cells that were taken from a woman in the 50s, cancer cells, that became the first cells to grow in the laboratory. These cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years and were involved in countless researches, discoveries and drugs development. He gave the class her full name – Henrietta Lacks – and said she was a black woman.
When Rebecca felt curious and unsatisfied with the knowledge he gave about the woman whose cells are so important to medicine and science, she asked what else he knew about her, but he could not give her any more details.
This incident in the biology class started the process that ended up in this book. Rebecca Skloot worked for ten years on writing this book, combining seeking knowledge about the research involving the HeLa cells, and looking for the descendents of Henrietta and trying to convince them to cooperate with her and tell her what they know about her personal life.
The book combines these three subjects – the personal story of Henrietta until she died of cancer, and the story of her family afterwards; the scientific story about the cells that were taken from her, all the research and discoveries that were made using them, and a fascinating discussion about medicine and ethics, and ownership and royalties of body organs and tissues; and her own story trying to reach out to the family of Henrietta, and her relationship with them, especially with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.
The personal story of Henrietta unfolds a heart breaking story of poverty and hard work of a family who worked the same tobacco fields their ancestors worked as slaves, of kids who dropped out of school before they could finish elementary school to work and help the family, of hunger, of consistent discrimination by skin color in everything including medical treatment. It is hard to believe that these events happened in America not so long ago.
I enjoyed all the parts of the book, both the scientific part including lots of anecdotes about the history of cell science and other subjects discussed in the book. I was touched by the personal story of the family. Skloot tried to understand the means of each character in this sad story without making almost anyone the bad guy. Alongside some of the very sad parts of the story there is always someone who shows compassion and gives some hope. I liked the character of Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, that had a very difficult life after her mother died, but always thought about how much her mother suffered instead of her own suffering, who didn’t give up on her brother who suffered maybe even more than her and made life very difficult for everyone around him. I was especially touched by her desperate need to know things she would never know about her mother, like if she was breastfeeding her when she was a baby.
This is not an easy read. I had to concentrate on the scientific parts, and the jumps between the scientific and personal parts didn’t help, but I am very glad I read this book, I learned a lot and it has lots of issues to think about.
A certain amount of the profit from the book goes to a fund for helping the Lackses get the education their parents and grandparents never had the chance to get. Contributions can be made directly to the fund .