2

If You Give An Italian A Typewriter…

I’ve been getting quite a bit of reading done over the past few days, and I’ve actually finished nine – count ’em – nine books this month. Not all of them were spectacular, and I won’t write reviews for all of them, especially since for a few of them I’ve forgotten a lot of key details, but one that I finished a few weeks ago and found particularly interesting was If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

Image result for if on a winter's night a traveler

A curiously unpretentious take on pretentious literature, Calvino’s book is a postmodern story-within-a-story-within-a-story. The book is written in two styles, alternating between chapters. The first style is in second-person, detailing the reader’s journey from a bookshop, where the wrong book was purchased, leading to meeting a girl, and a professor, and on it goes. The second style, in alternating chapters, are random chapters from different books with different titles, locations, and subjects, usually not having anything to do with one another. It took me about halfway through the second chapter to realize this, and also that all the chapter titles, when read one after another, form a complete sentence (albeit long). Even though the second style got confusing, I was more attracted to the first style, seeing the reader’s journey through the book and all. It had a choose-your-own-adventure feel that is not too common in most books today. And the prose, while flowery in parts, didn’t get too flowery and usually circled back to the point within a page or two. It was a fun adventure, but the type you go on once but you’re glad you did and you got home safely.

I thought to myself, “you know, this is kind of like what David Mitchell tried to attempt with Cloud Atlas, only a lot cleaner, crisper, and better.” Ironically, when I looked up the book’s Wikipedia, the two names I see listed other than the author? David Mitchell, and…Scarlett Thomas, AKA one of my literary idols, who adores this book. So it gets some points for association, most definitely, but I did close the book feeling satisfied, so that’s the important thing.

3

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.

2

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.

2

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.

 

 

3

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.

4

How I Invented the Movie

A few hours ago, I was all set to get out of my apartment and go down to State Street for some coffee, a reward, and reading time at Starbucks or Colectivo or something. A minute before I head out the door, I get a Facebook notification that there’s a get together going on at Five Guys. So, I go…read, or socialize? 

Backpack with books in tow, I head out and end up at Five Guys. It ends up being three tables pushed together full of people, and I get convinced to eat some fries. Then, we head over to Blue Velvet for martinis, because there’s a birthday in the group. So, I ask myself…read, or drink?

Then we’re at Blue Velvet, a bar I’ve never been to but is actually pretty chic. People see to be having fun, and so am I. I get suckered into buying and drinking a “Mother Pucker” sour apple-watermelon martini. And it’s delicious. But, eventually, I realize that I’m in a bar, with a backpack of books, and I haven’t read much of anything today, so I pay for my drink and head over to Colectivo for coffee, a croissant, and some reading time before they close at 10 and SNL starts at 10:30.

As I’m reading, I think to myself…what if there was, like a bar where it was socially acceptable to read? Then, I thought, how about a bar where reading is required? Like, the pages of the book are under panes of glass upon which you rest your drink, then press a button to turn the page. But then, I think wait, that wouldn’t be very social. But what if everyone was reading the same book? And what if it was on a giant screen in front of them? And they could watch it together, and it could have pictures?

And that’s how I came up with the movie.

13

What I Read in 2016

You’ve been forewarned – even though this is my first post of 2017, it will most likely be on the boring side.

So how are you? I’m doing fine, kind of FOMO right now, since I’m always in the wrong city, state, or country, as the occasion merits. This week in Madison, I’m missing Salsa Saturday, a number of dance classes, as well as a few get-togethers, and for New Year’s Eve, I was sitting at home with my parents rather than at a party in Madison or doing the midnight toast song with brothers who stayed in Pittsburgh. I am, however, enjoying just taking it easy for once after a stressful December (well, more like a stressful November, but a return-to-human December, as well as other household and teaching-related tasks that piled up on me) and trying to recoup and regroup for the coming year. I’m scheduled to fly back to Madison on Sunday, via Atlanta. Hopefully 2017 will be a zen time for me, to make up for the craziness of 2016 – not all bad, but just intense. Part of me is enjoying being lazy (I’ve either slept late or taken an afternoon nap every day this year/week), but another part of me really just wants to get back to Madison and figure out the rest of my life.

Anyway.

2016 was a relatively good year in terms of reading. According to Goodreads, I read 46 books totaling 13,716 pages. My shortest read was 129 pages and my longest was 560. My favorite books of the year were HushThe Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, and What Was Lost. From my Giant Reading List (approximately 248 fiction and 195 nonfiction/theatre), I read HushA Breath of Fresh AirLife is Not a Fairy TaleSpider Web, and We Are On Our Own. The most interesting stat? I read exactly double the number of books I read in 2015, and slightly more than double the pages, so that’s something.

Right now, I should go and finish a book that I’m about halfway through but want to get rid of tomorrow.