Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer RyanThe Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Crown Publishing Group on February 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

"Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!"
As England enters World War II's dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar's stuffy edict to shutter the church's choir in the absence of men and instead 'carry on singing'. Resurrecting themselves as "The Chilbury Ladies' Choir", the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.
Told through letters and journals, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit -- a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn't understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past -- we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir's collective voice reverberates in her individual life.
In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the home front, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.

My Review:

The Chilbury Ladies Choir is the lovely and immersive story of a small coastal village in England during the early years of World War II. The story is told entirely through the letters and diaries of the members of the choir as they navigate the changes that have arrived in their little town in the wake of war.

The first change is the one that gives the choir both its name and its purpose. Chilbury is a small town. All the young men and even middle-aged men are gone. Only the very old and the very young are left. The local vicar, on that side of very old, comes to the traditional conclusion that without any men, without any tenors, baritones and basses, the church choir will have to disband for the duration.

The new music teacher disagrees. There is no reason why the women can’t make a choir of their own, with music altered to fit their soaring soprano and alto voices. And so it begins.

The ladies of the choir, at first hesitant to do something so completely nontraditional, discover that their voices have not been stilled. If anything, their voices have been amplified and expanded by the war, as they are left to take up all the tasks that are still required by village life, jobs that used to be filled by men.

As tradition falls by the wayside, so do many of the social restrictions that governed daily life, and more important for women before the war, the rigors of strict respectability. Things that were simply “not done” are now done all the time, whether that’s work at the nearby government installations or take up with a dodgy artist who claims to be too infirm to enlist.

Their world has been turned on its head, yet they soldier (and sing) on, even as they receive black-bordered telegraphs from the front and as bombs fall on their tiny town.

We view the early years of the war and the remaining denizens of the village through their eyes. Young Kitty Winthrop’s diary, and her older sister Venetia’s letters to a friend in London speak of the mundane and the tragic. We see their still simmering sibling rivalry, we experience almost-fourteen-year-old Kitty’s stops and starts at growing up. We experience the tragedy of Venetia’s love affair through her letters, and observe her through Kitty’s eyes as she changes from a self-absorbed vamp-wannabe to a grown woman who finally matures.

Through the letters of the local midwife and the diary of the local nurse, we see a great swindle unfold. And we see crime finally turned into triumph.

We see all the woman grow and change and expand into their new roles, into this frightening new world. And in the midst of so many tragedies, we see them rise along with their voices.

Escape Rating A: I think that a lot of readers are doing to compare The Chilbury Ladies Choir to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and from the looks of things there certainly are similarities. Enough so that I feel the need to get a copy of Guernsey, which I haven’t read. Yet.

One big difference is that Guernsey takes place after the war, so the characters are reflecting on what happened rather than experiencing it fresh. Chilbury is contemporaneous, we read the letters and diaries as they are being written. We find ourselves in the middle of these characters lives, watching them change and grow. We learn about Kitty and Venetia’s family life by what they write, not by an omniscient narrator telling us that their father the local squire is a bully and a brute who abuses them and their mother. They write about what they feel as it happens, and we watch them try to avoid and justify and self-efface and cower in an attempt to survive. We feel their confusion and triumph as he finally gets put in his place.

We see half the women in the village experience some variation of his bullying and brutality, and cheer when someone finds a way to stand up to him and make it stick.

This is kind of a gentle story, in spite of the war. Some of the women experience tragedy, but because of the epistolary nature of the story, the blood and guts are not described, not even when the village is bombed. But the emotional tsunami in the aftermath is experienced again and again.

In a way, not a lot happens. And yet so much does. The story, much like the choir, works together so well that it is a joy to experience these women’s lives with them, even though we don’t know how it ends. And we don’t need to. The war eventually ended, but these women’s lives, and the lives they touched, went on. While it would be marvelous to see each one’s happy-ever-after (or at least get some resolution if they don’t get one) it doesn’t feel necessary for the story to conclude.

One final note: there is another author named Jennifer Ryan. The other Jennifer Ryan writes contemporary romance and romantic suspense. And was the source of one of my most sarcastic, and most liked, reviews on Goodreads, The Right Bride. The two Jennifer Ryans are definitely not the same.

If you love stories about the homefront during World War II, or women’s fiction, or just want to read a lovely story, I can’t recommend The Chilbury Ladies Choir highly enough.

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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, medical ethics, medical history, nonfiction, science history
Pages: 370
Published by Crown Publishing Group on February 2nd 2010
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.
HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.
The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was recommended to me in glowing terms by multiple people the year that it was published. And being in a contrary mood, I didn’t read it at the time.

I’m here to say that everyone who told me to “READ THIS BOOK” was absolutely right, and I was wrong to wait. This thing is awesome on so many levels.

It’s a medical mystery. It provides some serious context for discussions of medical privacy, including those HIPAA forms we all sign every time we get medical treatment these days. It dives deeply into the field of medical ethics. It makes you think about fairness and justice. It provides a fascinating and humanized history lesson in cell research.

And the description of cervical cancer treatment in 1951 is scarier than any horror movie ever made. It’s not that Henrietta Lacks was treated badly at that point, it’s that the treatment in general seems absolutely barbaric from early 21st century perspectives. The standard treatment was to insert tubes of radium into her cervix and sew them in place for TWO DAYS. If you are a woman and this doesn’t make you reflexively clench your legs shut, you are a much braver woman than I. The description of this treatment makes Torquemada look benevolent.

But this was the state of cancer treatment in 1951.

However, the story of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks both is and isn’t about Henrietta herself. Because Henrietta died in 1951. Her cancer killed her. But not before her doctor removed bits of both her tumor and her healthy organs and turned them over to the nascent science of cell research.

Cell science was nascent because of one major problem, the researchers couldn’t manage to keep a cell line alive for more than a few days. The bits of Henrietta that her doctor sliced out without her permission did not obey the normal rules of harvested cells. Just as her tumors grew at an unprecedentedly rapid rate, so did her harvested and cultured cells.

Henrietta Lacks died, but her harvested HeLa cells, thrived. At first only at Johns Hopkins, but eventually at biological research labs and companies all over the world. The cancer that killer her also made her immortal.

Henrietta, through her HeLa cells, helped cure polio. And diagnose cancer, and create vaccines for HIV and HPV. And helped scientists to study the effects of travel in outer space on human cells. You name a medical breakthrough in the past 60+ years, and HeLa cells are somewhere in the story, whether the actual cells, or the techniques that were created around them.

HeLa has saved thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of lives. Those cells have also made hundreds of researchers and biological products companies either rich or famous, and sometimes both.

But her family was not informed. Nor did they consent. In fact, when researchers needed better methods of distinguishing HeLa cells from other cultures, researchers took blood samples from her surviving family, without fully informing them of the purpose of the tests. And revealed their names and relationships to Henrietta in medical journals.

All of this seems unthinkable today, but at the time it took place, it was all legal. It wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that a researcher chose to include Henrietta’s surviving family in research about Henrietta and her miraculous HeLa cells, but by providing the family with the scientific information and simple respect that they had been denied for so long, was able to both give them closure and create the first complete record of this formerly unsung woman who changed the face of medicine.

Escape Rating A+: This book is really two stories running in a kind of parallel. The first story is Henrietta’s story. Not just the biography of her actual life, but also a tracing of the history of her immortal medical afterlife. The continuing life and journey of her HeLa cells. Those cells helped to create a revolution in cell research, which in turn created a revolution in medicine.

As with so many revolutionary ideas, those revolutions fed on themselves in either a vicious cycle or virtuous circle, depending on one’s perspective. Once a line of viable cells, the HeLa line, came into existence, everything about cell research has spent decades playing catch up. All of the procedures for handling, transporting, culturing and eventually selling cells developed because there were finally cells to create procedures around.

But even more importantly, the ongoing discussions in medical ethics, medical research and patient confidentiality are still catching up to the developments made possible by the myriad opportunities that were opened with the HeLa cells. Henrietta did not give permission for her cells to be harvested and used. The law did not require it. What will astonish you is that the law still doesn’t.

The story of the author’s search for Henrietta and her family, and her work with them and for them over the years that this book was in development make for every bit as compelling a story as the story of the HeLa cells.

As the years went by after Henrietta’s death, and as her cells were used around the world, there was a long period of time in the history where her name was obscured or deliberately covered up. Multiple names were put forward as the original HeLa, including Henrietta Lakes, or Helen Lawson, and most often, Helen Lane. Even as one reads the accounts, one gets the feeling that there was an attempt to hide the origin of the cells from the family. When the HeLa research began, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment was still going on, and there was a persistent and not totally false rumor mill that African Americans were frequently kidnapped for experimental purposes and often experimented on without their consent or knowledge. The kidnappings may have been apocryphal, but the experiments so clearly were not.

This was also the era of a kind of heroic medical researcher who thought nothing of injecting unsuspecting patients of all types (including sometimes themselves) with all manner of drugs and diseases without their consent. A study was conducted with HeLa cells, injecting HeLa cells, which were known to contain cancer, into healthy patients to see if they would develop cancer in turn. The patients were not informed because it might cause them “anxiety”. No kidding. And the great majority of the patients did develop tumors at the injection site which required surgery. At least one developed cancer.

Just the thought of this kind of research brings back the spectre of Nazi medical experiments in the concentration camps. And it makes me shudder in reflexive horror.

But as the real identity of the HeLa cell donor became more and more widely known, at least in medical circles, it also brought out of the woodwork more and more people who wanted to take advantage of the family in some way. By the time the author of this book began her quest, the family was angry at partial and incomplete explanations and disgusted by or frightened of the charlatans who knocked on their door.

So part of the story that the author tells is of her journey to being trusted, and then the journey she undertakes with Henrietta’s surviving daughter to uncover the truth. The questions that are explored, and the answers that they find, stick in the mind and heart of the reader long after the last page is turned.

Reviewer’s Note: The mother of a 15-year-old boy attending a STEM Academy in Knoxville Tennessee has requested that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks be banned from the entire school district on the grounds that the book is “pornographic”. Her contention is based on two incidents in the book. Henrietta first diagnoses herself by inserting her own fingers into her vagina to find the lump on her cervix that she believed was present. Which it was. And the second “support” for the charge of pornography is that Henrietta’s medical records include her multiple diagnoses of syphilis and gonorrhea, and go on to explain that she contracted the venereal diseases from her husband’s promiscuity. This is not pornography. This is history. And gynecology. Also a whole lot of courage on Henrietta’s part. How many of us would rather continue in ignorance than investigate inside our own bodies for ourselves?