Castaway on Angsty Island

Hey y’all, I actually finished a book. Well, two, but this entry will focus on just one of them, Bright Young Things, by the lovely Scarlett Thomas.

Bright Young Things is about six British twenty-somethings who go in for a job interview but end up stranded together on a mysterious island, with no idea why they are there or how they got there. We learn a little about each of them before they arrive: Anne is an uninspired, sarcastic virgin with Peter Pan Syndrome. Jamie, a mathematician, has a job and a girlfriend but wants out of both. Thea is a working-class girl who is woefully unaware of most of the modern world. Bryn is a dreadlocked drug dealer who could’ve “been a contender” had he just applied himself. Emily is a recent graduate with a degree in art who has turned to being an escort for money. And Paul is a soon-to-be-laid-off computer programmer who wants to drain his company’s coffers and distribute the wealth to random people. They all see the same ad in the job section of the newspaper (which shows you just how long ago this book was written), apply for the job, and go to an interview, where the last thing they remember is being offered a cup of coffee, shortly after which, they wake up side by side on an island.

The island’s mysteries get curiouser and curiouser. They weren’t meant to starve or freeze to death; there is a house with a kitchen full of food, drinks, and other supplies, and six bedrooms fully outfitted with bathrooms and fresh clothes. Despite being city kids, they even manage to locate and repair a generator. Over the course of a few days, they get to know each other better and attempt to figure out the answers to their questions, namely, why were the six of them chosen to be here, and how will they be able to escape?

It seems like it could be the premise for a touchy-feely book, where everyone undergoes a great personal journey. Well, in truth…it is, and it isn’t. While they all do find out a little bit more about themselves, it actually unfolds more like a tale of six strangers actually stranded on an island, complete with panic, arguments, side-taking, resolutions, and ultimately, working together. For a bunch of supposedly “bright young things,” they’re proven to be horribly inept at most of the basic survival skills, which – let’s face it – probably most millennials would be as well, myself included. They do have occasional moments of clarity, but they’re all very flawed and human. Even though there are only six of them, it is hard to keep track of them at times, and there are a few plot holes. For example, in the Truth or Dare scene, the author mentions “Paul’s secret” but we never find out what it is, and in one of the later chapters, Emily runs off and no one knows where she went, yet a few pages later she’s back with the group, eating dinner, with no explanation of how/when/why she returned. As a reader, we know that there are limited places she could go on an island, and being a social creature, would eventually return to the house, but I had to flip back a couple pages, and…nope. they make a big deal about her running out of the house but nothing is said about her return.

Overall, although it’s not my favorite Scarlett Thomas book (which seems to be a popular opinion among Scarlett Thomas fans, at least according to Amazon.com’s page on it), it was still a page-turner. Hopefully, in the future, she’ll write some sort of follow up which gives us a bunch more questions and too few answers.

This book review was brought to you by me wishing I could escape to that island. And FWIW, I’m totally Jamie, except not as mathematical but way nerdier.


To Whom It May Concern

I got through today’s normal load of classes and dance classes, but at least I’m commitment free until Monday. Wahoo!

I forgot to mention that the other day, I went to the library’s bi-annual used book sale, and against my better judgment, purchased about 10 books. The first one to catch my eye was entitled Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Once I started reading it, I literally could not put it down; I think I was 150 pages in before I realized my latter was getting cold.

Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel detailing the life of a frustrated, overworked college professor. Jason Fitger teaches creative writing at Payne University, a fictional college in the Midwest. He seems to attract students – and other people, later in the novel – who are in need of recommendation letters. He doesn’t hold back, giving his absolute honest opinion of everyone despite the application or his relationship with the person. Through these letters, we learn not only about the ridiculousness of the letter of recommendation (or as it’s called, the LOR), and how little Payne University cares about its English department (to the point where he needs a hazmat suit to go to his office), but about the less snarky and more serious side of Jason. We learn about his strange relationships with his ex-wife, Janet; his true thoughts on his co-workers; and the demons with whom he’s been living since his flash-in-the-pan success as a graduate writing student. Although the book is mostly lighthearted and funny, it takes an unexpected, dark turn in the final few pages that alters Jason’s outlook on the world, forever.

I related to this book in so many ways. Like Jason, I am in an underfunded humanities department in a Midwestern university. Even though my office is not a biohazardous area – I actually kind of like it – I am sure that there are graduate students who do less and have it way better. It is frustrating, however, that in none of the classrooms in which I teach do I have a smart board, or a way to show a video without needing to lug a projector around and waste 5 minutes of class time setting it up and praying that it works. I have not been in very many academic buildings, but it does seem like the ones which house the humanities are, in a word, neglected. The rooms in Vilas have TVs with VHS input, for crying out loud, and today  as I was setting up to teach my 1:20 class, in comes a building inspector to identify and document a small leak in the ceiling. And it’s not even on the top floor of the building. Science labs and athletic facilities, however, get tons of funding poured into them, with the money coming from tuition and who knows where, since we seem to be in an eternal hiring freeze.

Jason also deals with the flurry of emotions and stresses that seem inhabit just about every university discipline. Everyone I know in the university workplace is overworked, underpaid, and treated like the end of a loaf of bread that no one eats and either ends up in the garbage or in the back of a cupboard growing old and moldy. It’s a rare moment when people are joking around, and usually it’s to distract from the stress of an upcoming deadline or a massive, soul-crushing workload that makes you wonder why you’re in this line of work in the first place. It’s just like – while we’re here, trying to make ends meet, slaving away over funding forms and project proposals, and trying to navigate the politics of the higher-ups, college presidents are out shopping for their new lakefront homes and football coaches are appearing on radio shows and getting massive endorsement deals. Now you tell me, who deserves to get paid more? And yet, in almost every state in the USA, the highest paid state employee falls into either the category of university president or collegiate athletic coach.

Also, like Jason, I seem to get called upon for recommendation letters quite a lot. Every time I mention the subject to another grad student, they say that they never get requests. I guess either I’m popular, available, or a pushover; you take your pick. And I have not been afraid to write some really honest ones. At one point, when I was recommending a student for a program in Israel, I deleted an entire paragraph and just wrote something like: “Listen. I’ve been on an Israel program, and even though Jaclyn Rosenberger (name changed) isn’t an A+ student, she’s no trouble at all. From what I know of her, she is a sweet and genuine person, and not a crack addict. She is well-behaved, polite, and would probably be easy to live/work with. Bottom line, she would not cause you or your program any problems because I can’t see her fucking shit up, so just let her into your program and let’s be done with it.”

I wonder if she ever got in.

This book review is brought to you by all the recycling I’m too lazy to take out but will save the environment…eventually.


Three Somali Women

I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I’d like to, but I managed to finish one last book in the month of February: Nadifa Mohamed‘s second book, The Orchard of Lost Souls.

Unlike Edward Albee’s play Three Tall Women, the three women whose stories are explored in The Orchard of Lost Souls aren’t three incarnations of the same women; however, like in Albee’s play, they are three women in different stages of life. First, Dipo is an orphaned street child looking for direction; Filsan, a general’s daughter who has followed dutifully in her father’s footsteps only to discover how her male peers truly see her; and Kawsar, an elderly widow whose one act of rebellion incites the action of the entire novel.

Like her previous novel, Black Mamba Boy, Mohamed’s prose is full of local color and flavor, even though it doesn’t travel nearly as far geographically, with the characters never leaving metropolitan Hargeisa in Somalia.




Cell Ethics Tango

Hey look! I actually finished a book!

**Originally published 1/31, republished 2/5**

It managed to take me until this past weekend, but I actually finished 2 books this weekend, bringing my January total up to…five! The one I’m going to review here is the critically acclaimed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

This book, part scientific history and part family history, tells the story of the long-unknown Henrietta Lacks, whose immortal, biology-defying cells held the answers to treating and curing many diseases, and are still alive today, sixty years after her death.

The science-y part goes like this: In 1951, a woman called Henrietta Lacks, of Turner’s Station, South Baltimore, Maryland, passed away from a cancerous tumor. A procedure was done before her death by her doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, George Gey, to preserve some of the cells from the tumor, in hopes they could be kept alive after her death long enough to study them and use them for some lab testing. Gey was astonished to find that not only did the cells keep living, but they kept multiplying at an alarming rate, so much so that he couldn’t keep them all in his lab. Henrietta Lacks’s cells, known as HeLa, were soon distributed to labs around the country and beyond for further study and experiments, with a lab built in Alabama for the sole purpose of studying them. As far as what HeLa stood for, or who HeLa was, Gey and his assistant Mary Kubicek kept quiet, only revealing that HeLa was a woman, and not denying rumors that her name was “Helen Lane” or “Helen Larson,” but definitely not admitting that she was African-American; segregation and Jim Crow laws were still rampant, especially in the Southern United States, and views on African-Americans were not favorable. Even a hospital as renowned as Johns Hopkins kept people like Henrietta in a “colored” ward away from white patients. In time, HeLa became the strongest cell line in the world, contributing to cancer research, flying on NASA’s space shuttles, and all the while, passed around freely within the scientific community. And through it all, Henrietta’s surviving family members didn’t see a cent, and lived in poverty without health insurance despite their late mother’s pivotal contribution to modern science.

The family story part, in my opinion, is more interesting. Much like Henrietta’s cells, it’s divided into two parts: “Life” (pre-1950, during Henrietta’s life), and “Death” (in the 2000s, from the start of Rebecca Skloot’s research). In life, we learn what there is to learn about the hazy details of Henrietta’s short and sad life. Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in 1920 in Clover, Virginia. Her family was among the poorest of the poor in their community, and quite inbred, causing major health problems. Henrietta herself perpetuated that cycle by marrying and having children with her first cousin, David “Day” Lacks. Together, they had three sons – Lawrence, David Jr. “Sonny,” and Joseph “Zakariyya” – and two daughters, Elsie, who was born disabled and died in a Maryland mental institution as a teenager, and Deborah, who managed to break the cycle, receive some education, and eventually become the co-protagonist of Skloot’s book. After the birth of her fifth child, Joseph, she fell ill with cancer caused by a nasty bout of syphilis and, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, died in 1951. Fast forward fifty years to the “Death” chapter, where Washington-based writer Rebecca Skloot develops an interest in Lacks and attempts to contact the surviving family members. Eventually, she gets ahold of Deborah Lacks. Initially, Deborah is tickled at the idea of a book about her mother’s life, especially since she wants to know more about her, having few memories of her own, but eventually becomes suspicious of Rebecca and wary of the idea. Over a period of several years, Rebecca becomes acquainted and even friends with Deborah and the rest of the Lacks family, gaining their trust little by little and helping them go through the necessary steps to unravel the mystery of what happened to their mother/grandmother/sister/aunt, figure out what exactly her cells were capable of, and attempt to make peace with Johns Hopkins and the scientific community at large, who they find deceptive and distrustful, all because of a piece of paper the functionally illiterate Henrietta signed which gave the hospital all the rights to her cells. Some things end up getting resolved nicely, but there are still many question marks left in this continually evolving story.

This book brings up so many emotions. You feel shame for the plight of this woman, the lack of care for her life and death, and the consequences her family faced. You feel anger at the scientific community, yet you feel proud in the fact that you’re learning all of these previously hidden facts and secrets that deserve to see the light. You cheer whenever Deborah has an epiphany – from learning that her mother has not, in fact, been cloned, to finding a photo of her sister Elsie,, to learning how to use the Internet – and get frustrated whenever Deborah relapses into her suspicious ways, or when Rebecca hits a wall in her research. The issues it brings up are myriad and essential – what are the biomedical ethics involved here? What type of responsibility did Gey, Kubicek, and Johns Hopkins Hospital have to the family? Would it have been different if Henrietta were a literate, well-off Caucasian woman? What improvements could be made for the deplorable quality of life for people like Henrietta and Deborah? And can the Lacks family ever truly find peace, be repaid, forgive and be forgiven – and how?

Even if non-fiction or science isn’t your thing, this book is incredibly worthwhile. It shows that inside every human body, there is a soul to discover, and around every human soul, there is a body that deserves to be given a chance.

In salad-related news, the blades on my Sharper Image vegetable chopper broke off. I’m glad I picked out all the metal from my salad before eating it. Oh well, back to the cutting board.


Here We Go Loop-de-Loop…

As I mentioned in my last entry, I finished reading Hollow City by Ransom Riggs yesterday afternoon in Colectivo Coffee on State Street.

I read its predecessor, the fabulous Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a few years ago, so I was nervous that I’d need to put the book down to go back and reread the first one, but as soon as I started it, I immediately got right back into the story where I’d left off, with Jacob and crew on the sea. Not to spoil too much of the story – like my calendar did – let me just say that it is a spectacular adventure, even more exciting than the first book. I could hardly put it down. Although no great distance in traveled in this book, but the characters’ hops backwards and forwards through history is just as fun and fascinating. Some of the characters who sat on the sidelines in the first book get some more attention, most notably Horace, Hugh, and Enoch. We also get to meet a plethora of new characters, peculiar and not, from Addison the talking dog to Althea the ice girl, and travel to some new and exciting loops. The place where they ended up was exactly the place in time I thought they were going.

This book review was brought to you by Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, Mississippi, there are plenty of Great Americans, but it’s not like we get a day off for Barbra Streisand’s birthday.


Monkey Puzzle

Not only did I finish one book since I finished revising my prelims, but I finished a second! Incroyable, as the French might say. So here’s my review, without further ado, of What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn. This wasn’t on any list I had, it was just a completely random pluck from the shelf in Memorial Library and I’m glad I plucked it because it was pretty plucking fantastic.

What Was Lost, the debut novel by Catherine O’Flynn, is a mystery straddling the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, developing exciting storylines while commenting on urban blight (it is not, though, urban fantasy). We start in 1984, through the eyes of 10-year-old Kate Meaney, an aspiring detective, as she roams around Birmingham with her partner Mickey (a stuffed monkey) looking for crimes and adventure. She has a friend in 22-year-old Adrian, a local shop worker, and the people around her find it quite strange. One day, Adrian sees Kate off on a bus to take an entrance exam at a boarding school…and Kate is never seen again. After being hounded by the press, Adrian disappears as well.

Fast forward to 2004. Kurt, a security guard at the dying Green Oaks Mall, is manning the cameras one night when he sees the image of a little girl on the screen, holding a backpack, notebook, and toy monkey. He never finds the little girl again, but he does encounter Lisa, who works at one of the stores in the mall, who randomly found the stuffed monkey toy in a crevice in the wall. The two become friends, and after Kurt shares his mysterious sighting on the camera, Lisa shares that her brother, Adrian, disappeared twenty years ago, after the disappearance of Kate, who a) owned a toy monkey, b) regularly hung out at what is now Green Oaks, and c) may have been there on the day of her disappearance. Obviously, the girl Kurt saw on the camera wasn’t Kate, but it does bring some attention back to her disappearance, leading to more clues, unexpected arrivals, and ultimately, the fate of Kate.

O’Flynn’s writing style is very natural and flows well, it’s a page-turner both in form and content. Unlike the book I reviewed two posts ago (The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters by Timothy Schaffert), this was a book where I could skim here and there without missing anything major. Although I was much more interested in the Kate story line than the Kurt/Lisa story line, seeing these two disillusioned, unhappy retail workers find the answers to a long-forgotten urban mystery, little by little, made me want to keep reading. It’s also a rather slim volume, at around 150 pages; an easy read on a bus, train, or plane ride.

Some of the things that I found off about the book were the random asides, and Kurt’s involvement in the whole thing. Kurt is the first character we meet in the 2004 section of the book, and he really has no connection to Kate whatsoever, but randomly happens to see a girl (or so he thinks) who matches Kate’s description, even though it’s obviously not Kate, because she would be 30 years old by then. After meeting Lisa, who has an actual connection to Kate and Adrian, it just seems like a strange coincidence that he’d report seeing someone who looked like Kate despite a) never having met her before, b) not knowing what she looked like, or that she owned a notebook and a monkey toy, and c) never even knowing of her existence before Lisa entered the picture. Then, there are random asides in italics at certain points, by “Mystery Shopper” or “Shop Customer” that don’t seem to add a lot to the plot, other than giving some more establishing imagery/context, but ultimately, they don’t have names and there’s no real consistency to them.

I think that the book had some decent messages, especially considering the title, What Was Lost. Obviously, Kate and Adrian are physically missing, but in a way, it also describes the bleak existences of Kurt and Lisa who are trapped in retail hell at a dying mall, and the other characters too, including the ones who have no names but comment on the goings-on of the mall. On the whole, it’s an homage to turn-of-the-century urban ennui, adding a little bit of mystery through a quirky 10-year-old wannabe detective. I’m really glad I picked it up and I’ve already gone back to get another of O’Flynn’s books.

This book review was brought to you by my cold being over, but the rest of me not quite ready to return to normal life yet.


The Antique Shop at the End of the Universe

I actually finished a book recently! Review of The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters by Timothy Schaffert comin’ up!

(Review added 12/7.)

Ever since I’d had to read an excerpt from one of Schaffert’s novels for a history class last year, I’d wanted to read one of his novels. I ordered one off of Peebs, and decided that no day like today to get it read, reviewed, and passed on (I’ll be mailing it to Florida later today). So please enjoy this review.

The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters takes place in an antique shop in rural Nebraska, home to teenage sisters Lily and Mabel, who have been abandoned by their mother after their father’s suicide. Mabel, the older sister, is more methodical and introspective, whereas Lily is more impulsive and flirtatious. I wasn’t quite sure where the novel was going at first, but after we get to know their story a little better, we meet Jordan, a local boy who’s in a bit of a love triangle with both sisters. The story splits apart when Lily and Jordan hit the road in search of the sisters’ mother without telling Mabel, while back in Nebraska, Mabel searches for answers about her late father and ends up becoming quite involved with a family who have lost a young daughter. The story takes a lot of twists and turns, and honestly, I could not have begun to predict where it would end up.

One of the most beautiful things (or most annoying things) about the book is Schaffert’s language. He is incredibly descriptive, to the point where you have to actually be sitting up and paying full attention to every single word. It’s a fun place to imagine, with tons of creative details like Lily’s hollowed out school bus apartment to the descriptions of all the items in the shop. You can easily get lost in the richness of rural Nebraska, which, ironically, is probably poor and boring in real life. However, this does present a problem for reading this book before going to sleep; if you hypno-read, like I sometimes do, or skim pages, you can miss details which are incredibly important. For example, towards the end of the book, Mabel wakes up in the Roseleafs’ basement in her underwear, and when Wyatt and his brothers wake her up to take her to the Stitch farm, her clothes are still soaked from the rainstorm the night before. They have a box of miscellaneous clothes, and instruct Mabel to pick out something to wear. Then, there’s a paragraph describing the t-shirt she selected, which was a favorite of Callie’s. They then stuff her in the car, and when they arrive at the farm, Mabel decides she doesn’t want to get out, so Wyatt pulls her out of the car and through the mud. I was a little taken aback, thinking that Mabel, a young adult, was just wearing a t-shirt and underwear, riding in a truck with 4 men, and then dragged out and taken to the Stitch farm, but I turned to the previous page. Sure enough, in the paragraph where Mabel grabs clothes from the box, it also says that she gets a denim skirt with a butterfly appliqued on it, and a pair of jelly sandals, which makes it a lot less weird.

Another thing that’s interesting about this book is just the quirkiness of all the characters. To a degree, they all seem impulsive, and they seem to just do things at random, unexpectedly, which makes them fun but at the same time, a little questionable. For example, Lily has a habit of putting coins in her mouth (something she does several times in the book), and Mabel spray-paints her sneakers red for no real reason at all. Just like, yeah, let’s do it.

Overall, if you’re looking to go on an adventure but not as far as outer space, another dimension, or a world of wizards and witches, I recommend this book. The fact that there’s absolutely no magic in it makes it even more magical of a read.