Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Review: The Library Book by Susan OrleanThe Library Book by Susan Orlean
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, history, libraries, true crime
Pages: 336
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Susan Orlean, hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post and the acclaimed bestselling author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief, reopens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and delivers a dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—our libraries.

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual false alarm. As one fireman recounted later, “Once that first stack got going, it was Goodbye, Charlie.” The fire was disastrous: It reached 2,000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but over thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story as only she can. With her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, she investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives. To truly understand what happens behind the stacks, Orlean visits the different departments of the LAPL, encountering an engaging cast of employees and patrons and experiencing alongside them the victories and struggles they face in today’s climate. She also delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from a metropolitan charitable initiative to a cornerstone of national identity. She reflects on her childhood experiences in libraries; studies arson and the long history of library fires; attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and she re-examines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the library over thirty years ago. Along the way, she reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books—and that they are needed now more than ever.

Filled with heart, passion, and unforgettable characters, The Library Book is classic Susan Orlean, and an homage to a beloved institution that remains a vital part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country and culture.

My Review:

This is Banned Books Week. As part of my own personal Banned Books Week celebration I read and review at least one book about libraries, or books, or a book that has been banned. Or Fahrenheit 451 which kind of hits the trifecta.

The Library Book is not about book banning. Instead, it’s about book burning. Not the kind of book burning that occurs in Fahrenheit 451, but something less political but unfortunately just as deliberate.

It’s about a real-life case that definitely involved the perfect temperature, and conditions, for burning books. An awful lot of books.

But that’s not the only thing in The Library Book. A big part of the story revolves around that calamitous fire, the ultimately inconclusive investigation into its cause, and the massive amount of effort required in its aftermath for the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library to open for business once more.

In the process of investigating the fire, the author also took a deep dive into the current operations of LAPL. In the end, this book serves as a love letter to one of the great public libraries in the United States, and ultimately to all public libraries.

The process of looking at and into LAPL as it is today, the way that its mission has changed and adapted, and all of the many ways that it continues to serve its rich and varied community, showcases the vital work that libraries perform in the 21st century. And makes the case, yet again, that libraries are not dusty repositories of books.

That the author also rediscovered her own love of libraries, and the sweetness of the childhood memories she had wrapped around them, was the icing on the cake.

Reality Rating A: When I first picked this up I was expecting more than a bit of “insider baseball” – but I’m happy to report that is not the case. The author is looking at the library’s operation from the point of view of an interested bystander, a user of libraries, and not someone on the inside.

That being said, the operations she described will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a library, particularly those of us who have worked in some of the large urban libraries. While the Los Angeles community served by LAPL is different from Chicago, many of the internal workings of a large urban library seem to be the same.

The story of the fire is fascinating and heartbreaking. Like the author, I wondered why I did not remember the events when they occurred. I was a working librarian at the time. But the fire, as big as it was (and it was HUGE) could not eclipse the news of the Chernobyl disaster. Not much can compete with the potential end of the world as we know it.

Readers will find the investigation frustrating, as did investigators at the time. The story has all the elements of a true crime thriller – but with no definitive ending. Somebody set this fire, but we’ll never know who. This part of the story lacks closure but is true to life. There was a strong suspect with a weak alibi, but ultimately it’s a mystery.

What emerges from The Library Book, along with smoke that can still be sniffed between the pages of those books that survived the fire, is a portrait of libraries as community institutions, and just how vital they can be when they reach out and serve.

In the end, the story in some ways reminds me of the recent events in Brazil and the fire that consumed the National History Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Both fires were the largest of their kind. Both took place in buildings that were known to be firetraps – places where maintenance and prevention had been neglected for years. And both were conflagrations that caused incalculable losses of knowledge and history.

LAPL rose from its ashes, with a lot of blood, sweat, tears and above all, effort. Perhaps someday the National History Museum of Brazil will as well.

Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence

Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie SpenceDear Fahrenheit 451: A Librarian's Love Letters and Break-Up Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, libraries, nonfiction
Pages: 288
Published by Flatiron Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A Gen-X librarian's snarky, laugh-out-loud funny, deeply moving collection of love letters and break-up notes to the books in her life.

Librarians spend their lives weeding--not weeds but books! Books that have reached the end of their shelf life, both literally and figuratively. They remove the books that patrons no longer check out. And they put back the books they treasure. Annie Spence, who has a decade of experience as a Midwestern librarian, does this not only at her Michigan library but also at home, for her neighbors, at cocktail parties—everywhere. In Dear Fahrenheit 451, she addresses those books directly. We read her love letters to The Goldfinch and Matilda, as well as her snarky break-ups with Fifty Shades of Grey and Dear John. Her notes to The Virgin Suicides and The Time Traveler’s Wife feel like classics, sure to strike a powerful chord with readers. Through the lens of the books in her life, Annie comments on everything from women’s psychology to gay culture to health to poverty to childhood aspirations. Hilarious, compassionate, and wise, Dear Fahrenheit 451 is the consummate book-lover's birthday present, stocking stuffer, holiday gift, and all-purpose humor book.

My Review:

There’s a song in this book, or at least a subtitle, “To All the Books I’ve Loved Before”. And that observation also nicely encapsulates the level of snarky librarian attitude displayed throughout.

And this is also a terrific book to highlight Banned Books Week this week, as so many of the classics (and definitely less than classics) that the author pens her virtual missives to have been banned or challenged at one point or another.

Her letter to Fahrenheit 451 is every bit as meta as it should be. This absolutely timeless story about banning books has itself been banned multiple times in multiple places. Reading it reminds all of us librarians and our allies what it is we fight for when we fight for the freedom to read. And it’s a damn good book.

But the letter I particularly loved was her love letter to To Kill a Mockingbird, which has also been banned and challenged for decades. She loves it, because To Kill a Mockingbird is responsible for her lifelong love affair with books and reading. Not because she herself has read it, but because it is the book that turned her older sister into a lifelong reader. And it is her older sister who passed that gift that keeps on giving, to her.

There are love letters, and sometimes hate letters and snark-filled letters, to some other books that may not be classics, but still get regularly challenged. Like Twilight, which is as far from classic as it gets. Many people loved it, but that does not mean it will survive the test of time that makes a classic. Its derivative, Fifty Shades of Grey, also comes in for its fair share of that same attitude.

They’ve both been banned, Twilight for its witchcraft, and Grey for its sexuality. Having read both, these are books that I personally will be happy to see fall into the scrap-head of history – or the weeding pile of many libraries, but not as banning. They’ll always, and they should always, be available to whoever wants to read them. Which doesn’t mean that I’ll ever think they’re great lit – or even terribly entertaining lit. And yes, I read them both.

While her letter to Fahrenheit 451 is the author’s chance to talk about book challenges and book bans, many of her other letters and comments get into some of the nitty gritty of being a librarian surrounded by books. And involves some of the things that librarians have to do to maintain the libraries that surround them. Her letters to and about books that she is weeding, and the reasons that it may be time for some books to go, speak directly to the librarian in all book lovers.

And last but not least, of course, she makes book recommendations. It’s something we all do, because none of us can resist trying to matchmake every reader (and non-reader) with the perfect book for them.

Reality Rating B: I didn’t expect to read this cover to cover. It looks like the perfect book to dip in and out of. But the letters are like potato chips, you can’t read just one.

At the same time, I found myself wanting to quibble and argue with the author – as all book lovers are wont to do about what books they love best – and least. And it does have a bit of a feeling of “insider baseball”. I enjoyed Dear Fahrenheit 451 because it spoke directly to me as a librarian and reader. I have to wonder whether it will have that same effect on someone who is not both.

Except for Agatha Christie, who has definitely transcended her genre and become a “Classic”, the author doesn’t seem to be big on genre fiction. So if you’re looking for letters to science fiction, mystery or romance books, you won’t find much here. (If you’re looking, let me help. I’d be thrilled!) However, there are plenty of YA books that get a mentioned. Which is good, because there are plenty of challenges to YA books.

But the book does say a lot about the book lovers love of reading. And for that it’s awesome. And her letter to The One Hour Orgasm will absolutely leave you in stitches.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 9-24-17

Sunday Post

Today is the first day of Banned Books Week. And I’ll admit that my review of Dear Fahrenheit 451 on Monday is also an excuse to talk about banned books in general and Banned Books Week in particular. Again. Because I also wrote a bit (more than a bit) about it in my Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop post a couple of weeks ago. And that’s still going on, by the way, so there’s still a bit of time left to get in on your chance at either a $10 Gift Card or a $10 Book. Maybe even a banned book.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop
Sugar Pine Trail by RaeAnne Thayne
Defending Hearts (ebook) by Rebecca Crowley

Blog Recap:

B+ Review: A Casualty of War by Charles Todd
A- Review: Tramps and Thieves by Rhys Ford
B Review: Sugar Pine Trail by RaeAnne Thayne + Giveaway
B Review: Defending Hearts by Rebecca Crowley + Giveaway
A- Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine Bybee
Stacking the Shelves (254)

Coming Next Week:

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence (review)
Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2 (blog tour review)
Provenance by Ann Leckie (review)
Second Chance Girl by Susan Mallery (blog tour review)
A Snow Country Christmas by Linda Lael Miller (blog tour review)
Stuck in a Good Book Giveaway Hop

Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop, hosted by Bookhounds.

While this hop is a couple of weeks early (Banned Books Week officially begins Sept. 24) its theme is evergreen.

I firmly believe in everyone’s right to read whatever they want. As Ben Franklin said in the movie 1776, “there’s nothing so dangerous that it can’t be talked about”. Or, to carry the metaphor a bit further, can’t be read about.

This does also mean that people have the right not to read about whatever they don’t want to. But their rights end at my nose. Just because someone does not want to read a particular type of literature or a particular book, that does not mean that other people don’t have an equal right TO read that literature. Banning a book removes it from everyone, not just those who don’t want to read it.

To give a very hypothetical hypothetical, I do not like inspirational literature, and I don’t read it. However, my desire not to read that one particular type of literature does not and should not affect anyone else’s right to adore it.

However, most current examples of book challenges involve books for children, whether in school or at the public library. “What about the children?” is one its most successful rallying cries. And parents do have a right to control what their own children read. But the emphasis on that sentence is the bit about “their own children”. Just as parents who think completely differently from them, or in some cases parents of children who see themselves or their families represented in the books that other parents want to ban, actively desire that their children read books that reflect their experience, or what they believe is the world at large.

Sometimes Heather really does have two mommies. Sometimes two boys really do kiss. But as this list of the Ten Most Challenged Books of 2016 shows, not everyone wants to see the world as it really is, and wants to keep their heads in the sand as long as inhumanly possible.

  1. This One Summer written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
    Reasons: challenged because it includes LGBT characters, drug use and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes
  2. Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier
    Reasons: challenged because it includes LGBT characters, was deemed sexually explicit, and was considered to have an offensive political viewpoint
  3. George written by Alex Gino
    Reasons: challenged because it includes a transgender child, and the “sexuality was not appropriate at elementary levels”
  4. I Am Jazz written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
    Reasons: challenged because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints
  5. Two Boys Kissing written by David Levithan
    Reasons: challenged because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content
  6. Looking for Alaska written by John Green
    Reasons: challenged for a sexually explicit scene that may lead a student to “sexual experimentation”
  7. Big Hard Sex Criminals written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky
    Reason: challenged because it was considered sexually explicit
  8. Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread written by Chuck Palahniuk
    Reasons: challenged for profanity, sexual explicitness, and being “disgusting and all around offensive”
  9. Little Bill (series) written by Bill Cosby and and illustrated by Varnette P. Honeywood
    Reason: challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author
  10. Eleanor & Park written by Rainbow Rowell
    Reason: challenged for offensive language

There are many more resources about banned and challenged books at the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week site.

So celebrate your freedom to read by picking up a banned or challenged book. Or settle in for a Harry Potter re-read. The Harry Potter series has the number one spot on the banned and challenged list for the entire 2000-2009 decade!

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Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt VonnegutSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: classics, Fiction, science fiction, World War II
Pages: 215
Published by Dial Press Trade Paperback on January 12th 1999
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.
Don't let the ease of reading fool you - Vonnegut's isn't a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters."
Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut's most powerful book, it is also as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author's experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut's other works, but the book's basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy - and humor.

My Review:

1969 cover of Slaughterhouse Five
1969 cover of Slaughterhouse Five

Although I’m sure I knew it before, i was still surprised to see that Slaughterhouse Five was nominated for the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 1970. Slaughterhouse Five isn’t what we now think of SF. There are no spaceships (well, maybe one spaceship) and a debatable amount of faster than light or other than light travel. Instead, Slaughterhouse Five represents science fiction as the literature of ideas, and in that area, as in so many others it is a classic.

The winner of the 1970 Hugo was The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Slaughterhouse Five was in excellent company.

The climax of Slaughterhouse Five is the bombing of Dresden at the end of World War II. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, was a witness to that bombing, an American POW on the ground, or nearly under it, as the bombing took place. As one of the few survivors, he participated in the horrific clean up afterwards.

Billy Pilgrim is, to a greater or lesser extent, telling the author’s story at this point. In real life, Kurt Vonnegut was a POW held in Dresden during this incident, when allied forces reduced this once beautiful city to a rubble strewn landscape as barren and deadly as the moon.

This story is told by the unnamed narrator from a perspective at the end of Billy Pilgrim’s life. And because it is told at the end, the reader is never quite sure whether Billy really was unstuck in time, or whether he is just remembering the important bits of his life out of sequential order. And it doesn’t really matter.

Neither does the question of whether or not Billy really was kidnapped by the alien Tralfamadorians, who introduced to him the concept, or philosophy if you will, that every moment is forever, and that only remembering the good bits is the best way to manage existence.

What is certain is the Billy has post-traumatic stress disorder after his experience in Dresden. And who wouldn’t? Dresden comes last in the story, because it is the focus of everything. It is a moment of man’s absolute inhumanity to man, and Billy still can’t process it. So he keeps returning to it over and over, and every event that led to it, in an attempt to tell his truth.

Escape Rating B: I am glad I read Slaughterhouse Five. I had never read any of Vonnegut’s work before, but now I have a tiny glimpse into what made his work both so beloved, and so controversial at the same time. This review is being posted as a part of Banned Books Week, because Slaughterhouse Five is one of the most frequently challenged or banned books of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The bombing of Dresden was hidden from the American public for years after the war. It has been debated whether Dresden truly was a legitimate military target, or whether the entire purpose of the reduction of this formerly beautiful city to rubble was just to reduce what remained of German morale at the beginning of 1945. The bombing of Dresden caused as much of a loss of life as either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, minus the nuclear fallout. War is always hell.

Billy Pilgrim is a non-heroic hero. He is not brave in any way. He doesn’t serve with special distinction. But he survives, and manages the best he can, which in the end isn’t very well. He believes he’s done the best he can, coping with the uncope-able.

Having read the book, I’ll admit that I don’t understand the continuous attempts to ban it, particularly the most recent ones. There is profanity in this book. Many of Billy’s memories take place either among soldiers during wartime, or among POWs. I’d be more surprised if they didn’t cuss. There’s a little sex, and a lot of violence. Again, most humans manage to have a little sex, and talk about it a little more, over the course of a lifetime. And the terrible violence is part of an equally terrible war. The bombing of Dresden was nothing but violence. I will never understand the unwillingness of people to admit that what happened did in fact happen. Or those who believe that if we stop talking about the terrible past or the awful present, that it will somehow remove the worst events from history. A problem that has a great deal of resonance today.

It’s ironic that a story about the way that people in specific and humanity in general keep repeating the same mistakes over and over keeps getting banned and challenged, over and over. As that unnamed narrator says every time someone dies in the book, “And so it goes.”

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 9-25-16

Sunday Post

Last week was an “A” week. This week seems to be a “B” week.

And speaking of Bs, this is Banned Books Week. In honor of Banned Books Week, I have two special books on my list for the week. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut has been banned or challenged many times and in many places. This satirical novel about the author’s experiences in World War II is one of the most frequently challenged books of the 1990s AND the 2000s. In one infamous case, in 2011 a school district in Missouri banned the book from the local high school.

I managed never to read it, either in high school or later, in spite of the number of times it was recommended to me. I plan to rectify that omission this week. Additionally, I have The Brothers Vonnegut, a nonfiction book about Kurt Vonnegut’s and his brother Bernard’s work at General Electric, and the ways that their work influenced Vonnegut’s writing.

The freedom to read is part of the first amendment right of freedom of the press. Because the press isn’t really free if no one is allowed to read what it publishes.

Current Giveaways:

$20 Amazon Gift Card from MK Meredith and Seducing the Tycoon
Not Quite Perfect Tour Giveaway of 1 Kindle, 1 $50 Amazon GC and 2 $25 Amazon GC.
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the UnBe-Leaf-Able September to Remember Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop

not quite perfect by catherine bybeeBlog Recap:

B Review: Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah and Agatha Christie
B+ Review: Not Quite Perfect by Catherine Bybee + Giveaway
B Review: Seducing the Tycoon by MK Meredith + Giveaway
B Review: The Girl in the Castle by Santa Montefiore
B- Review: A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder
Stacking the Shelves (203)
Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop

slaughterhouse five by kurt vonnegutComing Next Week:

Autumn in Oxford by Alex Rosenberg (blog tour review)
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (review)
The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan (blog tour review)
Snowfall on Haven Point by RaeAnne Thayne (blog tour review)
The Brothers Vonnegut by Ginger Strand (review)

Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop

banned-book-hop-2016

Welcome to the Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop, hosted by Bookhounds.

What is Banned Books Week?

It’s an event that is sponsored every year by the American Library Association and a whole host of other organizations to celebrate the Freedom to Read. This year, ALA is partnering with We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) to bring more attention to the unfortunate fact that books by diverse authors or with diverse content are more commonly banned or challenged than other books.

Banned Books Week focuses on efforts across the U.S. to remove or restrict access to books. I’m going to put on my librarian hat here to say that the reasons that someone might want to restrict access to, or ban, a book are many and varied. While when someone says “banned books” most people think of sex, in real life anything that makes some people uncomfortable will incite in those people the idea of banning that book so that other people aren’t exposed to whatever it is that just made them uncomfortable.

Violence gets challenged. Speaking truth to power gets challenged. Books that contain historical truths that make people uncomfortable get challenged. Books that appear to uphold an opposing, untraditional or unpopular viewpoint get challenged. And yes, books that include sexual references, or even merely seem to include sexual references, often get challenged.

As I said in my Banned Books Week post a few years ago, “Everything bothers somebody”. And if that somebody gets bothered enough, they may try to ban the book that bothered them.

But Banned Books Week is all about the Freedom to Read. Just because a book upsets one person, or even a whole group of people, does not mean that those who are upset have the right to prevent others from reading that book. If one person’s meat is another person’s poison, then one person’s book to ban is another person’s book to cherish.

This year’s Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association;American Booksellers for Free Expression; the American Library Association;American Society of Journalists and Authors; Association of American PublishersComic Book Legal Defense Fund; the Freedom to Read FoundationNational Coalition Against Censorship;National Council of Teachers of English; National Association of College Stores; People for the American WayPEN American Center and and Project Censored.  And it is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

Diversity-banner-WEBSITE-780x300-v1For more information on Banned Books Week, including the absolutely fascinating lists of frequently challenged books, visit the official Banned Books Week site. The books on those list are guaranteed to contain more than a few surprises.

In my own celebration of Banned Books Week, I’m participating in the Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop. The prize is either a $10 Gift Card or a $10 Book, so that you can get your own Banned Book to read.

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And for more fabulous banned and bookish prizes, be sure to visit the other stops on the hop:



The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 10-4-15

Sunday Post

The Books That Need More Attention Giveaway Hop started yesterday, so there’s plenty of time to enter. This seems to be hop season, as there is yet another hop scheduled for this week, and then there’s the Spooktacular Giveaway Hop starting in mid-October. This may not be Christmas yet, but it still seems to be the season to give away books and bookish prizes.

But speaking of giveaways, I don’t say this often because it feels just a bit crass, but Reading Reality is an Amazon Affiliate. Buying one of the books you find on my blog (or any other book, for that matter) by going to Amazon from one of my links nets me a few cents or a dollar per book. Those affiliate fees add up, and they are how I fund the giveaways. So I very, very much appreciate when I see that someone has bought a book through my links, both because it means that I reached that person with my review, and because it helps provide the giveaways that introduce new readers to Reading Reality. So thank you all very much.

alternate banned books banner 2015And before we end the weekend, let’s take a look at what happened last week. It was a theme week for Banned Books Week, so all the books I reviewed were on topics related to Banned Books Week in some way. One book is currently under challenge, one talks about reading the world and what breaking out of our Western, anglophone reading habits might mean. And then the recent and controversial history of one of the world’s great libraries, as well as a book about our First Amendment rights and then a book about how those rights are being eroded by ubiquitous government and commercial surveillance. The books were fascinating and occasionally frightening. And compelling enough that I only made one change from my original plan – not because I’m not planning to read Terms of Service but because I needed to carry my book around the day I was supposed to read it, and I didn’t have an ebook.

Also, I admit, Patience and Fortitude was about half the length of Terms of Service, and it was starting to matter. These were all marvelous books, but not the kind of thing that keeps one up until 3 am because you want to see what happens next. I may do this again, for next Banned Books Week if no other time. If anyone has any thoughts on the concept or how it worked, please let me know in the comments.

And next week we’re back to our regularly scheduled genre fiction! I need a break from the serious.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Books That Need More Attention Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the $10 Book or $10 Gift Card in the Rockin’ Reads Giveaway Hop is Jennifer H.
The winner of the $10 Book or $10 Gift Card in the Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop is Susan D.

immortal life of henrietta lacks by rebecca sklootBlog Recap:

A+ Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
B Review: The World Between Two Covers by Ann Morgan
B+ Review: Patience and Fortitude by Scott Sherman
A Review: Freedom of Speech by David K. Shipler
A- Review: Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier
Books That Need More Attention Giveaway Hop

books to movies giveaway hopComing Next Week:

The Guilt of Innocents by Candace Robb (review)
An Ancient Peace by Tanya Huff (review)
Christmas in Mustang Creek by Linda Lael Miller (blog tour review)
Books to Movies Giveaway Hop
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (review)
Rock Redemption by Nalini Singh (blog tour review)

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
Goodreads

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?

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 9-27-15

Sunday Post

This week is Banned Books Week. You may, therefore, see a theme in my upcoming posts. I certainly intended there to be a theme. Someone recently attempted to ban The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks from her 15-year old son’s high school STEM curriculum and library on the grounds that it is “pornographic”. The other books this week have themes of reading, privacy and freedom. The freedom of speech (or the press) is not as free without the freedom to read what is written or hear what is said. The right to read and hear controversial speech without the fear of reprisal is tied inextricably into the right to keep one’s reading, viewing and listening habits private.

As an exercise in doing a theme week, this is also going to be interesting from my perspective. I’ll confess to wondering if I’m going to bounce off one or more of these books. Not Immortal Life, I’ve already finished it and it is fantastic. But some of the others, or a whole week of serious, may strain my ability to keep up. But if these don’t work, I have other titles in mind. And some of the other books that have been banned are absolutely fascinating.

banned books week giveaway hop 2015There are still a couple of days left to enter the Rockin’ Reads Giveaway Hop, and the Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop just started. The prize is the same, either a $10 Gift Card or a $10 Book. The book will be shipped from Book Depository, which allows me to do an international giveaway. They ship everywhere! But I still wish they did gift cards.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Book or $10 Gift Card in the Rockin’ Reads Giveaway Hop
$10 Book or $10 Gift Card in the Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the $10 Book or $10 Gift Card in the Stuck in a Good Book Giveaway Hop is Amy B.

jade dragon mountain by elsa hartBlog Recap:

B Review: Gold Coast Blues by Marc Krulewitch
A- Review: Marcus by Anna Hackett
Rockin’ Reads Giveaway Hop
B Review: The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton
A+ Review: Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart
Stacking the Shelves (154)
Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop

 

 

world between two covers by Ann MorganComing Next Week:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (review)
The World Between Two Covers by Ann Morgan (review)
Terms of Service by Jacob Silverman (review)
Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier (review)
Freedom of Speech by David K. Shipler (review)
Books That Need More Attention Giveaway Hop