Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ella Minnow Pea and A Secret Kept

Two of my February readings, both very different from each other!  I received Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn as one of several books from my wonderful son and daughter-in-law for Mother's Day.  I didn't get to it until a couple of weeks ago.  It is a quick, easy and funny read.  First of all, I am sure that you have caught the meaning of the name of the book already...if not, say it out loud and you will get it.  It's cute.  And perfect for this story!  The book is subtitled "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable".  What does that mean?  Well, "lipogrammatic" is defined as:

Lip`o`gram`mat´ic    (lĭp`ô`grăm`măt´ĭk)
a.1.Omitting a letter; composed of words not having a certain letter or letters; as, lipogrammatic writings.

Epistolary is defined as:

e·pis·to·lar·y  (-pst-lr)
1. Of or associated with letters or the writing of letters.
2. Being in the form of a letter: epistolary exchanges.
3. Carried on by or composed of letters: an epistolary friendship.

Does that help?

The story is told in a series of letters written to the various characters of the book, which helped make the book a quick read.

Ella Minnow Pea is a young girl who lives on the fictional island of Nollop, off the coast of South Carolina.  The island is named for Nevin Nollop, who wrote the panagram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog". (quick note: I could not find if Nevin was a real person or not).  Anyway, the citizens of Nollop are very committed to written communication and are devoted followers of their founder, Mr. Nollop.  So when a young girl discovers one day that the letter Z has fallen off of the Nollop monument, the town goes into a sort of panic mode, with the town council meeting to decided what they should do.  It is agreed that the loss of the letter Z must be a message from the deceased Mr. Nollop and so the council decrees that the letter Z can no longer by used by the town people, either in speech or written communication, including any reading that might have the letter Z in it.  So the good people of Nollop begin to adjust to a world without Z.  Then one day, the letter Q falls off of the monument.  And so it goes...letters start falling off, one at a time.  And each time it is decreed that the fallen letter can no longer be used.  And to make things even more difficult, a new law is passed that after three uses of a discarded letter, the citizen is banned from the island.

As you can imagine, things get quite difficult for the town people trying to communicate, read, sing, etc.  Ducks are not allowed on the island anymore because they make a sound with the Q.  When the letter D is discovered fallen, the past tense disappears.  As you can imagine, by the end of the book, the letters written are quite difficult to make out!  Thankfully, a solution is found, but I won't tell you the ending!

This was a fun book, and had the feeling of a classic to me.  I wonder how many of you out there have read it???

A Secret Kept was written by Tatiana DeRosnay, who also wrote Sarah's Key.  I loved Sarah's Key, so I was excited to finally pick up the author's latest book.  The story in A Secret Kept did not affect me nearly as much as Sarah's Key did, so I was a bit disappointed in the book.  It begins with two adult siblings (Antoine and Melanie) returning to a seaside village for a birthday weekend trip.  The village is where they used to vacation as children with their parents, but they had not been there for over thirty years when their mother had died, and life changed for them.  While there, Melanie remembered something quite disturbing about the last time they had been there with their parents.  As they were driving home after their weekend, Melanie was driving and started to tell Antoine what she had remembered.  Before she was able to tell him, she lost control of the car and was badly injured.  While Melanie is recovering, she eventually begins to remember what she wanted to tell Antoine about her memory that involved their mother.  After she tells him, Antoine begins to seek out others who might be able to help him understand Melanie's memory and get to the truth about his mother.  It was rather interesting and did keep my attention to finish the book.  I half expected to learn that the mother was still alive, but that wasn't the case.

Do I recommend it?  Yes, it was an easy, interesting read, so if you are looking for something light to read, it would do.  But don't expect anything like Sarah's Key.  It definitely did not live up to that expectation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Lacks is an amazing book.  I personally think every woman should read it...it is just fascinating and I can't believe that it took me so long to read it.  I think that part of the reluctance was my long-standing aversion to non-fiction, which I am slowly realizing was just ignorance on my part!  Perhaps that it too harsh...perhaps I had just never read gripping non-fiction growing up...I don't know...

The book fulfilled my on-going longing for genealogical research reading, although it is not really a book about genealogy per se. 

A very brief summary of the story is that Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman whose cells were, unknownly to her, taken in 1951 as she was struggling with cervical cancer.  Henrietta was thirty one years old, the mother of ten children when she went to John Hopkins Hospital reporting that "I got a knot on my womb."  Henrietta had been telling her cousins for over a year that she had this "knot", before she went to the clinic at the hospital. A few days after her visit to the clinic, she was diagnosed with Stage 1cervical cancer. At that time, cervical cancer was treated with inserting radium into the patient.  During Henrietta's first treatment, some cells were removed for biopsies.  None of that was unusual.  Usually the cells that were removed would die.  Henrietta's cells didn't.

Although Henrietta nor her family knew that the cells had been taken, the cells were cultured for research that over the years ended up having immeasurable impact in the world of medicine. The cells taken from Henrietta Lacks were called HeLa cells. 

Taken from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Henrietta-Lacks-Immortal-Cells.html#ixzz1mSxZzFnz:

"Why are her cells so important?
Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization."

The HeLa cells have helped uncover secrets of cancer, and fertilization.  And the research has generated billions of dollars for the medical industry.

The author reported that she first learned of HeLa cells in 1988 while attending a biology class in community college. Thus began her quest to learn more about the woman who had unknowingly contributed so much to the world.  It turned out to be quite a journey for the author.  As she wrote in the prologue:

"The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race.  Ultimately, this book is the result.  It's not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta's family-particularly Deborah-and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible."

Ms. Skloot slowly developed relationships with some of Henrietta's family and learned more about her life and their lives following the death of Henrietta.  It is fascinating reading, great detective work, and amazing genealogical research.

Read, read, read this book!

Monday, February 13, 2012

On Canaan's Side and The Year of Magical Thinking

I got On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry for Christmas (one of the books I had requested!).  One of my book groups had read Annie Dunne (reviewed in this blog on 2/23/2011) by the same author, and since I had enjoyed his previous books (he also wrote The Secret Scripture), I was anxious to read it.  What was interesting and surprising to me, is that I had not realized that it was about the same family as Annie Dunne!  As I was reading On Canaan's Side, I rather slowly realized that the story was being told by Annie Dunne's sister, Lilly. 

The story is told in the first person by Lilly.  It begins with the chapter "First Day Without Bill" and ends with the chapter "Seventeenth Day Without Bill".

Bill was Lilly's grandson, whom she raised.  He had gone to fight in the Gulf War, came home and committed suicide.  As Lilly mourns for the loss of Bill, she tells the story of her 89 years and the losses that she has suffered.  Her brother, Willie, was killed in World War I.  A soldier friend of Willie's, Tadg, came to pay his respects to the family and he and Lilly fell in love.  However, Tadg was involved in the Irish uprising and he and Lilly have to flee Ireland immediately before marrying and head to the United States.  Tadg and Lilly take on assumed names and begin living quiet lives in Chicago.  Unfortunately for them, they eventually are found and Lilly's life changes as she tries to keep her family safe. War again deeply touches Lilly's life when her son, Ed, goes off to the Vietnam War.

The story spans about seven decades of American history.  And all through Lilly's narrative, her Irish background and family are woven in.  Ireland has never left her.  Lilly's life was full of grief, love, mystery, loss, joy...all the emotions that embrace a lifetime.  I thought that the book did an excellent job portraying the aftermath of war in the way it can affect families.

I really enjoy Sebastian Barry's writing, and recommend the books!

I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion at the suggestion of my niece. I was glad to try it, since I had certainly read a lot about the book.  I don't know if I knew this or not, but Ms. Didion was married to the author John Gregory Dunne (for 40 years). The book is about her first year following his death.  Not only was she dealing with the unexpected loss of her life partner, but the week before his death, their only child, Quintana, had been hospitalized and was near death.  Ms. Didion was not even able to tell her daughter about her father's death for a few weeks, until the daughter was in better physical shape to learn of it.

The Year of Magical Thinking began.  Not able to get rid of his shoes, because what if he came back and needed his shoes?

"Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be."

 "Grief is different.  Grief has no distance.  Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blink the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life."

This book was not written as a self-help book, nor would I classify it as that.  I would even hesitate to recommend it to someone who was grieving, yet in the end, I think that I would recommend it.  I read it with two separate views.  As a therapist, I worried about the self-analysis that the author would go into, feeling that she was over analyzing things way too much.  But the wife part of me understood.  That is how one would feel and grieve. Her honesty in the book was much appreciated and is something that I may have to go back to someday. 

Near the end, she wrote of how she really didn't want the year to end.  It meant that John's death "will become something that happened in another year.". 

She wrote:

"I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John.  This day a year ago was December 31, 2003.  John did not see this day a year ago.  John was dead."

So very sad.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

children and fire

children and fire by Ursula Hegi is part of the author's "Burdorf cycle", taking place in fictional Burgdorf Germany, as did her previous novels, Stones from the River and The Vision of Emma Blau.  This most recent novel begins in 1934 in Burgdorf Germany where young schoolteacher, Thekla Jansen, is asked to begin teaching the following day.  When she asks what grade she will be teaching, she is told that it will be fourth grade.  Thelka realizes that she will be replacing her former and favorite old teacher, Fraulein Sonja Siderova. Thekla also realizes that Fraulein Siderova is being let go because she is Jewish.  She tells herself that she will teach the fourth grade just until Fraulein Siderova can return.

Thus begins the real story of the novel...Thekla's dilemma of going along with the Third Reich proclamations, believing that Hitler's power will not last.  She adopts kind of a "head in the sand" attitude and encourages her students to just go along with whatever is requested of them and get through it, as she thinks that it will soon end and all will return as it was.  She encourages her students to join the Hitler Jugend and to not make any waves over any of the proclamations that continue to come. Of course, as time goes on, it becomes more apparent that Hitler's power is becoming stronger and more pervasive and Thekla has to begin to adjust her thinking about how to manage the moral compromises that she has made within herself.  And has to figure out how to live with the tragedy that unfolds involving her students.

Through-out the story, Thekla is working on her Ahnenpass, one of the things requested of everyone to have completed.  I was curious about the Ahnenpass and checked it on Wikipedia:

The Ahnenpaß (literally, "ancestor passport") documented the Aryan lineage of citizens of Nazi Germany. It was one of the forms of the Aryan certificate (Ariernachweis).
The term "Aryan" in this context was used in a sense widely accepted in scientific racism of the time, which assumed a Caucasian race which was sub-divided into Semitic, Hamitic and Aryan (Japhetic) subraces, the latter corresponding to the Indo-European ethno-linguistic phylum. Nevertheless, the de facto primary objective was to create extensive profiling based on racial data.
The investigation for lineage was not obligatory as it was a major undertaking to research the original documents for birth and marriage. Many Nazi followers had already begun to research their lineage even before law required it (soon after the NSDAP took power on January 30, 1933).
One important law which was issued on April 7, 1933 (after the Nazi assumption of power) was called the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, and it required all public servants to be of "Aryan" descent. The law, however, did not define the term "Aryan" and a subsequent regulation was issued on April 11 as the first legal attempt by the Third Reich to define who was, and who was not, a Jew. The implementing decree followed the pre-Nazi trend found in the Aryan Paragraph[1] and read in pertinent part that:
„Als nicht arisch gilt, wer von nicht arischen, insbesondere jüdischen Eltern oder Großeltern abstammt. Es genügt, wenn ein Elternteil oder ein Großelternteil nicht arisch ist. Dies ist insbesondere dann anzunehmen, wenn ein Elternteil oder ein Großelternteil der jüdischen Religion angehört hat.“
Those are not Aryans who descend from non-Aryan, especially Jewish, parents or grandparents. It is sufficient (grounds for exclusion) for one parent or grandparent to be non-Aryan. This is particularly assumable if a parent or grandparent adhered to the Jewish religion.
The applicable fields were later enlarged under different laws to include lawyers, teachers, medical doctors and finally requiring a proven Aryan lineage even to attend high school or to get married. Usually, the lineage was investigated four generations back. The Ahnenpass cost .60 Reichsmark.
The Ahnenpass was not public record; the document was shown where required and returned to the bearer.
As a result, genealogical research particularly flourished in Germany during the Third Reich. Opposition clergy helped many racially persecuted individuals by providing them with fake passports as a personal document necessary for survival.

This makes sense that as a teacher, Thekla would probably have been considered a public servant, so she would have been working on her Ahnenpass.  She begins to find some discrepancies as she finds documents and begins to question her own parentage and what learning more about her ancestors could mean for her.

There are many things to think about in this story, which I often find when reading about this period of history.  Who is to actually know what one would have done?  And what one would be left to live with?

This was a good book.  I bought it to read because I have read her other two previously mentioned books and liked them.  She is a good author!  I recommend her books!