Book Awards, Festivals, and Henrietta Lacks

It’s been a busy past week in book-related news. First off, congratulations to Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan for winning the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” Like Eric Lomax’s memoir “The Railway Man,” which I read and reviewed earlier this year, Flanagan’s book is about a prisoner-of-war working on the Thailand-Burma “Death” railway in WWII. The main character is an Australian surgeon whose life is a daily struggle to save the men under his command. The novel’s inspired by Flanagan’s father’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner-of-war at a camp where 14,000 died. I know I’ll want to read “The Narrow Road,” but I still have another scary P.O.W. book to read first … “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. Need I say more? The film opens at Christmas.

Meanwhile our city’s annual book festival, Wordfest, has been going on this week, and as usual it’s been great hearing authors do readings and interviews about their latest books. I’ve been attending an event each evening and so far have heard Emma Donoghue (“Frog Music”), Damon Galgut (“Arctic Summer”), Tahereh Mafi (“Shatter Me” series), Veronica Roth (“Divergent” series), Padma Viswanathan (“The Ever After of Ashwin Rao”), Alison Pick (“Between Gods”), and Miriam Toews (“All My Puny Sorrows”). Some of these authors’ works I’ve known and others I have not, but hearing from them made me interested in their works nonetheless.

Apparently 600 people were in attendance when authors Tahereh Mafi and Veronica Roth interviewed each other at the Knox Church downtown. They held a good discussion and are quite poised and mature for their young age and huge success (both are only 26!). Call me a YA ignoramus, but I didn’t know about Mafi’s “Shatter Me” series beforehand, but she spoke very eloquently about her life as a writer and what it takes. Roth was cool as well. I read and reviewed her book "Divergent" in March before the movie came out. She came off looking a bit punk with very short, dyed blond hair and black boots. She’s tall to begin with, around 6 feet, whereas Mafi says she is 5’ 2.” Roth says she started fiction writing everyday when she was 11 (holy smokes), whereas Mafi took it up after college. I’m not sure what is next for either of them, but they still have long writing careers ahead.

It’s been an inspiring book festival this year, but it’s not over just yet. I still have two author talks left to go to: Canadian author Kathleen Winter tonight and Australian author Tim Winton on Sunday. You might recall Winter’s 2010 novel “Annabel,” which I read and reviewed earlier this year. She’ll be talking about her new nonfiction book “Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage” about a journey she took from Greenland to Baffin Island and all along the storied Northwest Passage. I can’t wait to hear about it and will likely get the book as she is such a terrific writer. Tim Winton, too, will be talking about his latest novel “Eyrie,” which I reviewed earlier this year. He’s been a finalist for the Booker Prize twice and is an amazing talent. I especially liked his novels “Breath” and “Dirt Music” and hopefully will have him sign my copy of them.

Lastly in book news this week, I finished Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 nonfiction bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which was a book club read that we plan to discuss on Tuesday. I had this book sitting on my shelf for four years so I’m glad to have finally polished it off. It’s about a woman who died from cancer in 1951 and the cancer cells that were taken from her without her knowledge, which became the first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, launching a medical revolution in developing vaccines and uncovering secrets about viruses and cancer.

It’s a book about science — about what her cells did and contributed to — and bioethics — about whether consent or compensation is due when cell or tissue samples are taken — but it’s also a story about finding out who Henrietta Lacks was and tracking down her family. It turns out she was a poor black Southern tobacco farmer from Clover, Virginia, and her family didn’t know about her cells or her contribution to science till 20 years after her death. Moreover, they never received any compensation for her cells even though they’ve been sold worldwide to doctors and research labs ever since.

It’s quite a story that obviously you’ll see from the book’s writing consumed the author’s life in piecing it together for more than a decade. I can’t believe Rebecca Skloot’s patience in writing this book! She seems to hold it together, even when the Lacks family wasn’t easy to deal with a lot of the time nor the medical establishments. Towards the middle, I found the book bogged down a bit in its repetition of information about the cells. Luckily it picks up again later. In the end, the book gives an eye-opening glimpse into the early days of medical research when doctors experimented on patients without various legal guidelines.

I definitely felt what happened to Henrietta and the family’s story were unfortunate and sad in the book. They were taken advantage of at various points and had little means to hire a lawyer to make their claims and grievances known. It’s a book that raises various questions about what happened to Henrietta, her heirs, and who owns our bodies. It also illuminates the wonder known as the HeLa cell, which has helped people from all over to conquer diseases. I would recommend the book to those interested in science or even nonfiction narrative stories because this one will catch you up in it, rolling along in its grip until its conclusion. It's just as much a human interest story as it is a science one.

What about you have you read this bestseller and what did you think?

A Rundown on October Releases

Well, the “Gone Girl” movie last weekend was quite good. It’s dark and follows the novel closely; the ending doesn’t stray. I was impressed by the whole Gillian Flynn / David Fincher adaptation of it. It’s done well. What did I expect — from a director with such a resume — a muck of it? But I won’t talk about the movie too much because it would spoil it for others. Suffice it to say Rosamund Pike won me over as “Amy,” and Ben Affleck was believable as the dubious “Nick.” Neil Patrick Harris seemed a different choice for me as crazy Desi — haven’t seen him in a role like that before, but Tyler Perry is excellent as attorney Tanner Bolt. Even Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister does a good job. Check out “Gone Girl” if you haven’t already seen it and let me know what you think. Does it live up to your expectations and the novel of it?

So far "Gone Girl's" my movie pick for October, but there are some other interesting ones coming out (see list at left). Robert Downey Jr. is in the new drama “The Judge” with Robert Duvall, and Brad Pitt is in the WWII film “The Fury” about an Allied army sergeant who commands a tank crew to go behind enemy lines. I’m sure I’ll likely see those sometime. But I’m also a bit curious about seeing the movie adaptation of S.J. Watson’s 2011 bestseller “Before I Go to Sleep,” which stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman (once again together). The movie of it comes out on Halloween, which gives me time to read the novel first. I’m not sure how I missed it when it came out, but it sounds like a good thriller worth racing through.

Meanwhile in novel releases this month (see list at right), there’s a few I have my eye on. First off, Marilynne Robinson, who has “Lila” coming out, is a giant of a writer and I have read only one of hers, “Housekeeping” from 1980. I have not read her more famous novels “Gilead” from 2004 or “Home” from 2008, which are about an elderly pastor and his family in a small town in Iowa, but I know I should rectify the situation ASAP. Her new novel “Lila” revisits the characters and setting of “Gilead” and “Home,” so I think I should start with those first. What about you have you read her novels? Many say “Gilead” is one of their favorite books of all time. Hmm, I must get on it.

I’m also a bit curious about Jane Smiley’s new novel “Some Luck,” which is the first book in a trilogy about the life and times of a family on a farm in Iowa. (What is it about Iowa?!) “Some Luck” starts in 1920 and takes the family through the 1950s. You might recall Smiley’s other novel set on a farm in Iowa -- “A Thousand Acres” from 1991. Oh my, was that book potent, it almost killed me. But will this new trilogy be as dark or as good? Hmm we will see.

I’d also love to gobble up British author David Nicholl’s new novel “Us, ” which Amazon says is “the story of a man trying to rescue his relationship with the woman he loves, and learning how to get closer to a son who’s always felt like a stranger.” I didn’t read his previous novel “One Day” but I saw part of the 2011 movie adaptation of it on TV once, with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. As for “Us,” it’s supposed to be both funny and moving and authors Jojo Moyes and S.J. Watson both say they loved it. So count me in.

As for honourable mentions, Marlon James’s sprawling new novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” looks like a humdinger of a wild ride. Weighing in at 704 pages, the novel explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976 with a wide array of characters that are assassins, journalists and drug dealers. It’s about Jamaica and the drug wars from a tumultuous period. I’m not a big reader of really thick novels, but the more I hear about this one, the more I’m thinking I should take the dive. Author Marlon James sounds like a hugely talented, ambitious and creative writer; one that shouldn’t be missed.

Lastly in albums out this month (see list at bottom right), there’s quite a few big names with new releases coming out. There’s Stevie Nicks, Taylor Swift, Jackson Browne, and Cat Stevens among others. Right now, I’m taking a different tact and enjoying Frazey Ford’s new solo album called “Indian Ocean.” You might recall Ford from her days singing with the Be Good Tanyas. I didn’t know others played this Canadian folk group until I heard their music at my yoga studio one day while in the States.

What about you -- which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

Gone Girl and This Is Where I Leave You

Well, the opening weekend for the movie “Gone Girl” is finally upon us. Is everyone ready? I had to re-check my review of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestselling book to remember the gist of it. What I remember is this: the book starts out pretty straightforward or so one thinks and then towards the end it pretty much flies off the rails, right? It takes some pretty crazy twists and turns. But you weren’t expecting Nick and Amy to be the nice married couple who recently moved back to Missouri from New York, were you? So much for the celebration of their fifth wedding anniversary. Amy and Nick are perfect for each other ... that is, until they aren’t.

I plan to see “Gone Girl” this weekend. Of course, I have to see if Ben Affleck is the right “Nick” and if Rosamund Pike is the true “Amy.” The two actors didn’t naturally come to my mind when plans for the movie were announced. Affleck was coming off his Best-Picture winner “Argo” and Pike reminded me of her lovely role in “Barney’s Version.” But could either one play conniving dirt bags? I’m sure having David Fincher as director helps. He’s had some big movie hits with “The Social Network,” “Fight Club” and “Seven” to name a few. So “Gone Girl’s” outlook looks promising, even if it’s a lengthy 2.5 hours long. But will the ending be changed? If you were a fan of this book, then you’ll just have to go check it out and see.

Meanwhile I just finished Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” which also has been adapted to the big screen and is in theaters right now. I haven’t seen the movie of it yet, but I thought the book was quite good. You probably saw the movie preview and know it’s about a quirky Jewish family that gathers for the first time in years to observe “sitting shiva” together after the death of the father. The mother, the three grown sons, their sister and the spouses don’t necessarily get along but must gather at their childhood home for seven days to receive visitors and mourn.

With all the colorful personalities, it’s a bit of an awkward situation at the house made more so by the main character, the son, Judd, who happens to be on the verge of a breakdown. He’s discovered his wife has been having an affair with his boss for a year, which has sent him into a dark tailspin, giving the book’s narration a lonely, vulnerable lens.

The book's rather sad but also quite funny. Tropper has done a number with these characters, especially the four siblings, breathing life and humor into them. There seems to be no real secrets in the family among each other’s personal lives, and none of them has very good relationships with their spouses. It’s a bit of a spoof on relationships and marriages. There’s considerable profanity and sex and sex talk in the book, which might not be for everyone. I think quite a few people at Goodreads disliked how the main character Judd objectifies women through out it (mentioning if they had smooth legs or a great behind etc.). He’s meant to be a lonely, sad sack of a horny male but that’s not to defend it too much.

I, too, at first worried the novel “This Is Where I Leave You” was just going to be a flippant look at a family and imperfect marriages -- something for laughs --- but instead as it goes on the story conjures some real heart about growing up, family, and the people we love. Not to mention, it’s filled with wry observations about life that seem too good to miss. The suspense of it comes from wondering if Judd is going to resolve his breakdown and marriage, and if the family will pull through the shiva together or implode. You’ll want to stick with it to find out. Tropper is definitely a talented writer who pulls it wonderfully together. I hadn’t read him before, but plan to check out his novels in the future. I’m thinking the novel must be considerably better than the movie of it out right now. Have you seen it?

Or you have you read this novel or author before? Or have you seen the new “Gone Girl” movie? And what did you think?

A Rundown on September Releases

September is always a great month for new releases, and wow there’s some big names with new fiction out this month. With Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Theroux, and Hilary Mantel all having short story collections coming out, you know it’s an extraordinary month. I’m curious about these and initially chose 10 books from the list at the right that I’m interested in but then forced myself to cut that to six to highlight here.

First off, I rarely ever miss reading a new Ian McEwan book (“Atonement” is still my favorite of his). So I’ll likely pick up his new one “The Children Act” about a judge who must decide the fate of a 17-year-old boy who is refusing for religious reasons the medical treatment that could save his life. His devout parents share in his wishes. In the end, the judge’s ruling will have huge consequences for both the boy and her. It seems this plot of refusing medical treatment because of religious faith has been done quite a bit before, but I don’t know if it’s been done before by a writer as good as McEwan. So I’m drawn to his book despite perhaps its familiar topic.

I also don’t think I can resist the new novel “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel because of all the positive buzz it’s been receiving. Heck, I didn’t think I could stomach another dystopian, survival story, but if it’s as compelling as many are saying then I’d be missing out by not checking it out. Apparently the novel’s about a roving Shakespeare troupe that strives for more than mere survival after the apocalypse hits. Author Ann Patchett says “Station Eleven” is “so compelling, so fearlessly imagined, that I wouldn’t have put it down for anything.” And Entertainment Weekly calls it the “most-buzzed about novel of the season.” Hmm.

Another one that has received much praise and interests me is Laird Hunt’s new novel “Neverhome.” It’s about a farmer’s wife who decides to don the uniform of a Union soldier in the Civil War and fight. Apparently she is a remarkable narrator of the story with a powerful voice. Author Kevin Powers says “Neverhome took me on a journey so thoroughly engrossed that there were times the pages seemed to turn themselves." So count me in on this one.

Next up, I’m curious about Margaret Atwood’s new collection of nine tales “Stone Mattress.” I can’t say I’m a huge Atwood nut (I know her fans are legion) though I think I’ve read five of her books, but I’m drawn to this collection because it’s mostly received good buzz. When Atwood’s on her game, her books can be truly playful enterprises. Similarly I must say I’m also interested in Hilary Mantel’s new short story collection “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.” Wow I thought Mantel was consumed by Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, but I’m delighted to she has some contemporary stories coming out at the end of the month. I’m intrigued to find out what she’s written about in this new endeavor.

Lastly, I’m not sure I can pass up Garth Stein’s new novel “A Sudden Light” because I found his previous novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain” an endearing, compassionate heart-tugger. This one is about a 14-year-old boy who goes to stay at his grandfather’s mansion overlooking Puget Sound and finds the house haunted. BookPage calls “A Sudden Light” the best of many genres: a ghost story, a love story, historical fiction …. a truly killer read.” So I’ll have to check it out as well.

As for movies in September (see list at left), I’m sorry to see that the new comedy “This Is Where I Leave You” was pretty much panned by critics at the New York Times and Washington Post. What a bummer. I’m reading Jonathan Tropper’s book now, from which the movie comes, and had high hopes that it would be quite amusing. I will wait for it then on pay-per-view. But perhaps if it’s a love story you’re looking for you might check out “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” with James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, who are usually quite good, or if you want to see a thriller perhaps “The Two Faces of January” at the end of the month will be entertaining. It’s by the same author, Patricia Highsmith, who wrote “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Gosh was that turned into a creepy movie. Remember?

In albums for this month (see list at bottom right), there’s a bunch of big releases. I’m already listening to U2’s “Songs of Innocence,” which is a definite must-get. I’m so glad it was made free on iTunes. I also want to check out Lucinda William’s new album “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone” because I’m a huge fan of her music and songwriting. I’m curious too about Ryan Adams’s new album and Justin Townes Earle’s. There’s so much good music this month ... and as usual so little time.

What about you -- which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

September Days

Greetings and happy September! I was away for a while, sailing with my hub on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. We rented a boat and had an enjoyable adventure, sailing during the days and docking overnight at small marinas and islands. I’m still learning quite a bit about sailing, but my husband grew up on it and knows most of the ins and outs. We had some good wind and the area was beautiful and we didn't have any incidents with the boat or anything so we feel very fortunate that it all worked out quite well.

While onboard I was reading Annie Proulx’s first novel “Postcards” from 1992. It’s not really an easy novel so I’m not sure why I chose it for reading material on the boat, but a friend had given me her copy months ago and told me to read it. So I eventually did, even though I had to push myself a bit in the last 100 pages.

It’s a story that follows the Blood family, who are New England farmers, as they struggle to exist and adapt in the 20th century, from the 1940s through the 1980s. There’s the parents, Jewelle and Mink, the daughter Mernelle, and the sons Dub and Loyal, who turns out to be the main protagonist.

At the beginning, Loyal, the eldest son, is forced to leave the farm when he accidentally kills his lover and hides her within a stone wall. That’s when you get an idea this novel is going to be rather bleak. Loyal doesn’t tell anyone about her death but takes off across the country on a self-imposed exile of solitude and struggle, like he deserved the hardships for his past deed. Over the years, he roves from job to job first in mining, then fossil finding and later trapping, sending back occasional postcards to his family’s farm in Vermont. He's viewed rather sympathetically in the book despite what he's done.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family falls in ruins, and eventually loses the farm. The other son Dub and the father spend time in jail for arson, the daughter responds to a lumberman’s ad for a wife, and the mother finds work in a cannery till one day she loses her way driving on a mountain road during a snowstorm.

So all does not go too well for the Bloods. "Postcards" is a different kind of novel, one that follows a family’s struggles during the American 20th century and mixes in postcards at the start of each chapter from the family members to one another and from other characters. The postcards add an interesting dimension to the characters and the times they’re living in. Author Annie Proulx is at her best describing the lives of her gritty characters in farming, mining, hunting, and trapping and the natural world around them. Wow does she seem to know how these people live and breathe. This novel didn’t win the 1993 Pen/Faulkner Award for nothing; she can write.

But the story itself didn’t really consume me, and I didn’t latch on to any of the characters. Towards the end, the book rambles for a while and I had to focus hard to finish it. Proulx seems a brilliant stylist but perhaps her novels such as this one aren’t exactly known for riveting storytelling. They’re known for having quirky, odd characters, yes, in bleak or violent circumstances, but the story not as much. I read her novel “The Shipping News” back in the ‘90s and recall it being filled with quirky characters in dark situations, too.

What do you think? Have you read any of her books before?

It’s good to push oneself reading at times, but now I need something fun and lighter. I’m going to pick up Jonathan Tropper’s novel “This Is Where I Leave You” because the movie is coming out soon and it looks worthy of some laughs. Hopefully the book is good, too. Have you read this one, or do you plan to see the movie?

The Painter

A lot of people read and raved about Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic debut novel “The Dog Stars” from 2012. I gave a copy to my Hub who liked it quite a bit. I still plan to read it, but picked up the author’s second novel “The Painter,” wondering if it could be as good.

It’s about a well-known expressionist painter Jim Stegner, 45, who’s trying to piece his life back together after a stint in jail, two divorces and the death of his teenage daughter to a drug dealer. He’s moved from Santa Fe, N.M., to a rural town in Colorado for a fresh start, and appears to be finding solace in the beauty of the wilderness and in fly-fishing. He’s inspired to paint again and finds a model for his art, who’s a fun, smart woman who seems to understand him and get his work. In time, she becomes his girlfriend.

All goes well, until Stegner encounters a man brutally beating a horse. He’s a well-known bad guy who’s a hunting outfitter in the area. Stegner’s violent altercations with him, and then his brother, shatter the peaceful existence of his new-found life. The police are on to Stegner, and so, too, is one of the hunters seeking revenge. Stegner’s on the run, but he’s still painting thought-provoking works fueled by anguish and love. His daughter’s death still hangs over his life. In the end, you’ll be wondering if he’s going to be able to cope without her, and you'll also wonder if he’ll be arrested for the hunter’s murder, or if he’ll be killed. But you won’t know for sure till the last few pages.

It’s a pretty suspenseful book and I got drawn in by the protagonist’s plight right from the start. He seems a good-hearted, well-intentioned guy who’s made some mistakes and is trying to start anew. Unfortunately he also has some violent tendencies when he runs into bad situations or people, which get him into trouble.

“The Painter’s” plot is compelling and Peter Heller captures the western landscape and fly-fishing beautifully. Painting also plays a big role in the book as Stegner’s mental states take shape on his canvases. For the most part, the depiction of his art throughout it enhances the novel and adds an interesting element. There’s just one point near the end that I felt the painting parts got in the way and were a bit tiresome. It’s when an intense scene with the sheriff confronting Stegner is followed by dozens of pages about Stegner’s next paintings when all you really want to know at that late point is will he be apprehended. It just gets a bit prolonged there.

Otherwise, I really liked Heller’s writing style. “The Painter” has some beautiful descriptions and poignant thoughts on life and love. On top of that it has some intense action scenes, which heighten its suspense. The ending, too, deciding Stegner's fate, kept me thinking about it for long after. Now I’m really looking forward to reading “The Dog Stars.” After sampling this one, I know it’ll be good. Heller, for sure, is a writer to be watched.

How about you -- have you read this novel or author before? And what did you think?

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