As it turned out, I only read two books last month. But they were pretty intense, so I was happy to concentrate on them alone.
In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O'Brien. Wow. I thought this was an amazing book. I haven't read any of O'Brien's other books, though I know he is considered a good writer, and has had the theme of the Vietnam War throughout the stories. I chose this as part of my "What's in a Name 3" challenge, to represent a book with a body of water in the title.
When the book opens, John and Kathy Wade are at a cabin in the Minnesota woods, where they have gone to get away from life for a while. John has just lost an election that he was supposedly a shoe-in to win, and we are aware that something came out about him towards the very end that caused him to not just lose, but lose in a landslide.
John and Kathy talk about how they can now start over, live their lives with more freedom, and spend more time together. It's clear they are trying to be positive, but there is always the undercurrent of what happened to blow the election.
John is haunted by memories of childhood and his father, whose love he was always trying to win. He also has memories and flashbacks from his tour of duty in Vietnam. He has managed to build himself what was until recently a very successful political career, and keep his demons hidden.
One morning when John wakes up, Kathy has disappeared. Gone. This sets into motion a series of events that lead us to an explanation of what had happened in John's past that cost him the election, and also asks the question: Did Kathy disappear on her own, or did John kill her?
O'Brien weaves the story in a way where past and present mingle, and truth and hypothesis are intertwined. Each person interviewed by local law enforcement officials mentions things about both John and Kathy that make them even more enigmatic. I did not necessarily care about either of them a lot, but unlike other books where that is the case, I still wanted to finish this one.
The ending? Just like the rest of the story - confusing and murky. It seems appropriate for it to end on the note that it does.
Reading this book also brings back in horrifying and appalling detail an incident in military history during the U.S. time in Vietnam that I had not thought about in years, but remember vividly.
This book is well-written, unsettling, and defintely one worth my time.
(P.S. And on a totally personal level, I was glad to finally read a book by this Tim O'Brien, so I can stop thinking that he is the Tim O'Brien that I know!)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I have been wanting to read this book for a while, so when I saw it on the shelf at the library, I just grabbed! I find medical stories, particularly medical history, fascinating, and this one sounded like there was such a weird "twist" to it, I was looking forward to sitting down with it.
So, how was this book? Excellent, interesting, frustrating, and sad. It is the story of a woman named Henrietta Lacks, an African-American living in Baltimore in 1951, who gets what is years later defined as a very aggressive cervical cancer, and dies, both from lack of knowledge at the time about cancer in general, and because she never questioned her doctors. After her death, doctors took some of her cells to see if they could grow new ones. This was at a time when informed consent did not really exist, particularly not in the legal sense, and when it was routine for doctors to take cells and tissue samples from patients to use in the lab. Up to Henrietta's cells, the doctors had no success keeping them alive - but hers multiplied at an incredible pace!
As a result, HeLa cells (the first two letters of her first and last names) were traded around the world for research, and later, sold to labs all over the world. The book begins when the author becomes curious about what exactly HeLa cells are, when professor mentions them during a class she is taking. Rebecca Sloot was determined to learn what she could about Henrietta and her family.
The book details her eventual relationship with the Lacks family - Henrietta's husband, and her adult children. It was about 20 years until they learned anything at all about their mother's cells still being "alive" and used by scientists. Skloot has a hard time winning them over, as they have been approached at different times by white people wanting to know about their mother, but without any kind of useful explanations.
Without going into more detail, I can say that I found this to be a really good read. The history of Johns Hopkins Hospital, and its reputation (real and mythical) in the surrounding poor black neighborhoods is one thing. But you also have a family whose wife/mother's death leaves a huge void and causes some really terrible things to happen to her children while they are growing up. You have a climate where the doctor is never ever questioned, and where when they finally are, they give clinical and/or vague explanations. Henrietta's family is poor, and have not had many educational opportunities, so the "explanations" often lead them to even more confusing ideas about just what the doctors and scientists are doing.
I continued to be frustrated a) at the way medicine treated Henrietta and later, her children, b) how their lack of education led her family to so many traumatic worries and problems, and c) how, throughout the book, her family - when she had made such an impact on how doctors found cures and treatments for disease - was too poor to have any health insurance.
Skloot tells the story very effectively, without being patronizing or making excuses for anyone. You do begin to realize that medicine - both scientifically and ethically - has come a long way since Henrietta died in 1951.
The Lacks family's story is a compelling one, that will make you think. Not just about what happened to them, but what could be/has been happening to you and those you love.
Worth the time spent reading it, that's for sure!
Both of these were library books, so I don't have any to offer as giveaways this month. But I can highly recommend each one as a worthwhile to borrow from your own local library.