Review: Breaking Night, by Liz Murray

Talk about overcoming obstacles.  Liz Murray has done it.  Born to drug-addicted parents living in the Bronx, Liz was homeless at 15.  By that time she had already experienced life’s hard knocks in ways most of us could never imagine:  waiting up all night for her parents to come home from bars, watching them shoot up in the kitchen, having her belongings sold to buy drugs.  The family’s apartment was in poor condition to begin with, and her parents were unable to keep up with basic maintenance.  The bathtub drain was so backed up, the smell permeated the rest of the apartment.   By the time she turned 10, Liz was skipping school regularly, trying to earn her own money pumping gas or bagging groceries.

Liz’s mother left for another man, and Liz remained with her father.  When conditions forced him to move to a shelter, Liz entered the foster care system, living in a group home for a while.  She was then returned to her mother’s custody, but soon began skipping school again and eventually left home to live on her own.  She stayed the night with friends or slept on the subway.  She became involved in an unhealthy relationship, and stayed in it too long simply for the perceived security.  Shortly after her mother died from AIDS, Liz “hit bottom” and began working to get her own life together, attending an alternative high school and obtaining her degree in just two years.  She also obtained a prestigious New York Times scholarship that enabled her to pursue a university degree.

However, despite a compelling story, the writing was just average, and repetitive in parts.  Sometimes the emotions were raw and hit hard; at other times I failed to connect even when I felt I should.  Because it’s a true story, it was a difficult read.  I know there are thousands like Liz facing similarly extreme hardship, who will never be able to turn their lives around.  While Liz’s perseverance was amazing, what most impressed me was her ability to love, accept, and forgive those who wronged her.  There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer.  Before she passed away, doctors obtained cell tissue from her tumor.  These cells became the first human cells grown in culture, and proved to be “immortal”:  growing and dividing, providing essential material for scientific research that has furthered the development of modern medicine, including groundbreaking achievements like the polio vaccine.  There was just one thing: the cells were taken without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent.  By today’s medical ethics and privacy standards, this sounds outrageous.  But at the time, such activity was commonplace.

Author Rebecca Skloot first learned about Henrietta’s cells, known as HeLa, in a high school biology class, and thus began more than a decade of research to learn everything she could about the woman whose cells still exist today in laboratories all around the world.  Skloot explains the process of cell division and cell culture, how the cells were used in research, and some of the accomplishments enabled by HeLa cells. This was all fascinating material in its own right.

But even more interesting is the human story behind the science.  Henrietta was a poor African-American woman who grew up in Virginia and moved to Baltimore when her husband found employment in the steel industry.  She had several children, including a daughter who was institutionalized and died young, several sons, and another daughter, Deborah, who was about 50 when Skloot began working on her book.  Deborah and her brothers had learned about the cells several years earlier, and were outraged.  How could scientists make so much money off their mother’s cells, when Henrietta’s children could not even afford their own healthcare?  And what business did (mostly white) journalists have, poking around in their family’s affairs?

Slowly and with incredible patience, Skloot gained a bit of Deborah’s trust and pieced together Henrietta’s story.  And, it seemed, she also helped the family better understand what happened to their mother, and work through some of their anger and grief.  When Henrietta died, doctors were perceived as infallible, not to be questioned.  And a black patient would never have considered questioning a white doctor, or even seeking clarification.  The family was left to draw their own conclusions.  Their emotions were fueled by a basic lack of knowledge: of the facts behind their mother’s condition and treatment, and of the basic scientific concepts.

There were some incredibly moving moments in this story.  Deborah’s younger brother had led a life of violence and crime, catalyzed by losing his mother at a young age.  But he achieved a degree of inner peace, thanks to the kindness of a young researcher who showed him his mother’s cells for the first time.  And Deborah’s story — wow.  She was a rock, and yet so fragile.  Her pain brought tears to my eyes many times.

This was an absolutely fascinating book, raising challenging and controversial ethical issues while telling a very real story of love and family.

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Review: Flush, by Virginia Woolf

This is not your typical Virginia Woolf.  Written as a light break after finishing The Waves, Flush is a “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel.  Drawing on Browning’s writing and other details of her life, Woolf imagines the life Browning’s dog must have led.  Being Flush’s life story, it is told entirely from his perspective.  His life began in the country, and he moved to London when Flush went to live with Elizabeth.  He adjusted to the confines of city life, and bonded with his new mistress.  But when Robert Browning began to call on Elizabeth, Flush felt excluded and jealous:

He resolved to meet his enemy face to face and alone. No third person should interrupt this final conflict. It should be fought out by the principals themselves. On the afternoon of Tuesday, the 21st of July, therefore, he slipped downstairs and waited in the hall. He had not long to wait.  Soon he heard the tramp of familiar footstep in the street; he heard the familiar rap on the door.  Mr. Browning was admitted. Vaguely aware of the impending attack and determined to meet it in the most conciliatory of spirits, Mr. Browning had come provided with a parcel of cakes. … Flush sprang upon his enemy with unparalleled violence.  (p. 67)

Flush gradually came to terms with Elizabeth’s relationship, survived the hazards of nineteenth-century London, and accompanied his owners to Italy when they married.  There he discovered new smells, and new types of dogs.  And when a baby arrived, he once again had to adjust to changes in the family.

A book like this is often dreadfully cute and silly.  But Flush is written by a master, who loved dogs and had a brilliant way with words.  The result is a delightful balance between fiction and non-fiction that makes for a delightful read.

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Review: 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

Well, that was an hour well spent.  I read this short memoir in a single sitting over breakfast, and it was a lovely way to start my day.  This is a well-known book, and I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said.  But just in case you are not familiar with 84, Charing Cross Road, it is a collection of letters between an American woman in New York, and an employee of a London antiquarian bookshop.  Helene Hanff sent her first letter to Marks & Co. in October, 1949, politely requesting a few books she had been unable to find in the US.  Marks & Co.’s representative Frank Doel replied with customary courtesy, and thus began 20 years of correspondence.

The letters between Helene and Frank deal mostly with books, but as time passes they share more details about themselves.  Helene is a freelance scriptwriter, struggling to make a living and ever hopeful of traveling to England.  Frank is married with two daughters.  Initially his family must cope with food rationing and the aftermath of World War II.  Grateful for Frank’s ability to find rare books, Helene regularly sends “care packages” to Marks & Co., filled with hard-to-find meat and eggs.  Later on, Frank and his wife buy their first car, and their daughters reach adulthood.

In some ways it’s surprising the correspondence ever moved beyond the transactional.  Helene displays all the usual American stereotypes:  she is forward, informal, and somewhat demanding.  Frank never rises to the bait, always maintaining his professional reserve.  I smiled to myself, imagining the conversations Marks & Co. employees might have had about Helene.  But over time, bonds formed and a genuine friendship developed between Helene & Frank.  I wished so much that the two would have an opportunity to meet face-to-face, but it was not to be.

This is a wonderful book about a relationship formed through a shared love of books.

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Review: When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins

This book is a modern history of women in the United States from 1960 through the 2008 US Presidential campaign.  Gail Collins, the first woman to serve as editor of the New York Times editorial page, begins with a detailed review of the role of women, and societal attitudes towards women, in 1960.  There were virtually no women doctors or lawyers.  Television had taken the nation by storm, with 90% of American families owning a TV, and most programs portrayed the men in lead roles and women as subservient.   Housework was very time-consuming, with labor-saving devices only just beginning to enter homes.  Most women did not feel poorly treated; it was just the way things were.  Surprisingly (at least to me), the civil rights movement was a trigger event that set waves of change in motion.  Collins takes the reader decade by decade up to the present time, showing how women gradually earned rights, both legally and informally, and celebrated the early pioneers who made it all possible.

The book effectively covers my entire life (I was born in 1962).  And while I had some idea that we’d “come a long way baby,” (as the ad used to say), I didn’t realize how much radical change had occurred until reading this book.  I also found it very interesting to reflect on my personal experience during each decade.  In that regard, the most meaningful chapters were those covering the 1980s and early 1990s: the time in which I came of age, went to university, got married, started a career, and had a family.  But the chapters covering the 1960s and 1970s were compelling, because they put into perspective events that were somewhat of a mystery when seen through a child’s eyes (Roe vs. Wade is one notable example).

I recommend this book for all American women who would like to better understand the key people and events that shaped the society in which we live today.

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Review: At Large and at Small, by Anne Fadiman

This lovely book celebrates the “familiar essay,” a lesser-known genre popular in the early nineteenth century.  Author Anne Fadiman describes it:

The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side … His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was often so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover’s intimacy. (p. x)

This book contains twelve essays, each infused with Fadiman’s own enthusiasm and delivered as if I were sitting right there with her.  As with any collection, I had a few favorites:

  • Ice Cream: Fadiman shares her love for ice cream, while weaving in a bit of history and a story about her brother, who is obviously very dear to her.
  • Procrustes and the Culture Wars: In a similar vein to Ex Libris, this essay discusses interesting questions about literature including, “Should the life of a writer affect our valuation of the work?” and “Should a book be demoted if its plot fails to meet standards of behavior that have changed since it was written?”
  • Mail: a brief history of the postal service, a celebration of old-fashioned mail, and a self-deprecating look at the author’s early foray into email.  I found this one amusing, and also a reminder of how far technology has brought us in the 10 short years since the essay was written.
  • Moving: Fadiman shares a personal experience moving from New York City to Massachusetts.  This essay made me reflect on my own attachments to specific places, and on the importance of taking chances now and then.
  • Coffee:  a wry take on the importance of coffee, a beverage I also adore!

I enjoy Anne Fadiman’s writing, and liked this collection just as much as the earlier Ex Libris. And since each essay is only around 20 pages long, this is the perfect book to slip into a briefcase or handbag for reading on the go.

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Review: A History of Their Own, by Anderson & Zinsser

In A History of Their Own Volume I, authors Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser serve up a richly detailed history of the lives of women in Europe, from the ninth to seventeenth centuries.  Traditional history texts structure the narrative around events central to the development and accomplishments of men (the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, etc.)  In their research, Anderson and Zinsser discovered that women were affected by very different forces, and organize their narrative accordingly.  Then they set out to explain:

Why had laws, economic systems, religion, and politics excluded European women from the most valued areas and activities of life? How had cultural attitudes evolved which defined women as innately inferior and placed them in a subordinate relationship to men? (p. xiv)

Volume I provides an in-depth analysis of women in several walks of life:  women of the fields, churches, castles and manors, and walled towns.  In each case, the authors show how over the centuries women gained power, and were subsequently subordinated to men.  Sometimes this occurred as the side effect of some technological advancement that changed the role of women.  In other cases their loss of power was the result of deeply held beliefs regarding woman’s physical inferiority.  In all cases, gender was the single greatest factor affecting the lives of women.

Anderson and Zinsser present a compelling thesis, meticulously researched.  At times I felt there was almost too much detail, with so many facts and examples that I wanted to say, “all right already!  I get it!”  And with so many stories of oppression, this book can be rather depressing.  And yet it’s important for women to understand their history, and this is a very good way to learn it.

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Review: Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful women in 12th-century Europe. Heiress to a vast region of what is now France, she was first married to Louis VII of France and, later, to Henry II of England.  As Queen of England, she founded a long line of monarchs who ruled England and many other European countries for centuries to come.  As Alison Weir writes in this biography:

There were then, as now, women of strong character who ruled feudal states and kingdoms, as Eleanor did; who made decisions, ran farms and businesses, fought lawsuits, and even, by sheer force of personality, dominated their husbands. … The fact remained that the social constraints upon women were so rigidly enforced by both Church and state that few women ever thought to question them. Eleanor herself caused ripples in twelfth-century society because she was a spirited woman who was determined to do as she pleased. (p. 4)

The unfortunate reality is that most written history is focused on men and their achievements. Weir pieced together evidence from contemporary sources in an attempt to illuminate the life of this “spirited woman,” but this book was much more about Eleanor’s actions as they related to her husbands and sons, and their quest for dominance of feudal society.  Weir portrays Eleanor as strong and intelligent, and the men as violent, power-hungry philanderers.  She fails to explain why Eleanor would work so hard to preserve their power.  Reading this book increased my knowledge of Henry II, his sons Richard and John, and the constant power-brokering of that age.  Eleanor was present throughout, always on the scene and sometimes playing a role in negotiations.  But who was she, really?  What motivated her?  How did she feel about being separated from her children, sometimes for years at a time?  I was hoping for more insight to Eleanor as a person, but I suspect there just isn’t enough evidence to produce a comprehensive portrait.

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