Books in Review, December 2016

The last one of the year! Check out the other post for the full year review.

(Updated in 2020 to reflect my refined genre classifications.)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

It’s no secret that I love science. But loving something means recognizing all of it, and not paving over its flaws. For science, especially the medical sciences, in my opinion its biggest flaw historically was mistreatment of human and animal subjects. (Fortunately, while issues are not entirely eradicated, egregious mistreatment is now the horrifying exception, not the rule.) Henrietta Lacks was treated for aggressive cancer in the late 40s-early 50s in the only hospital in the region that would accept indigent black patients. At the time, participation in research was viewed as contributing towards the cost of providing care, so patients involved in research (not only indigent patients) were not asked for consent, or, frequently, even told research was happening – in her case, on biopsied cells from her cancer. Shortly after her biopsy was taken, and the cells began to grow into an immortal cell line (a cell population that will continue dividing indefinitely), she died of her cancer. And her cells, dubbed HeLa, are still going strong today, contributing to valuable biomedical and pharmaceutical research, countless medical advancements, and hundreds of millions of lives saved. Her surviving family form the focus of this extraordinarily human book. While enthusiastic about the contributions of HeLa cells to medical science, they are frustrated from being uninformed about the original experiment and everything since, having their medical privacy violated (her and some of her children’s genomes were publicly published), and feeling cheated of the trillions of dollars of profit that HeLa has generated. Though the book was published in 2009, the story of HeLa and the Lacks family isn’t over, nor is it the only violation of what we now recognize as patient rights (but which were not recognized as such in 1951, when she died). The only way science can become stronger as a field and a community is to acknowledge and study our past and present shortcomings, to learn from our failures prevent similar ones. The circumstances leading to the HeLa cell line are, to the modern institution of science, unacceptable – and we would do well to not forget them.

Format: nonfiction. Subject: life science, history. Rating: 3/3

The Girl with All The Gifts, MR Carey

Zombies, but with an unsettling side of realism and based on real-life (ant) zombies (caused by a parasitic fungus). I had to sleep with the lights on. I swore to myself I wouldn’t read this late at night, but it was so engrossing I just read straight from like 7pm to bedtime. And then I was too freaked out to sleep, besides the fact that I was crying over the characters, and desperately itching to get to the next and the next and the next horror the world is going to throw at them… or have them become. On top of all that, it’s the single most interesting source and handling of zombie infection I think I have ever encountered, and I have read/seen/listened to a lot of zombie media – not just because it’s got a basis in science, but because it was unique, had a plausible mechanism for action and spread, and also… was really freakin creepy. I was genuinely on-edge the entire time I was reading this. Although I could understand every character’s motivations, and resolve all their decisions and desires into a coherent, dimensional whole, I still couldn’t always predict their actions – a rare balance. Too often, characters are deeply realized but at the expense of predictability, or vice versa. Any one of the essential elements of the book – the plot, the characters, the setting and the particular zombie virus, the writing style – would be enough to recommend it on alone, and together, they sweep to a top spot.

(PS only one blatantly inaccurate neuroanatomy reference, and it was irrelevant to the plot, which is not bad! Neuroscientist book nerd OUT.)

Traditional genre: scifi. Setting: scifi/postapocalyptic. Story genres: quest, specfic, thriller, ensemble, commentary, high concept. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande

I have never read a book, or anything, that so entirely captured one of my main life philosophies: write it down. A checklist, a to-do list, and calendar, a packing list, a map, whatever the situation calls for – your memory is not as good as you think it is, but if you write it down it doesn’t have to be. People think I have a really good memory (which, I’m good, but I’m not that good) but actually, I just keep an obsessive calendar and to-do list. I have a checklist list for making my to-do lists. I was already 12000% sold on the dogma of the checklist going in, but now I can articulate exactly why they are so useful, with evidence for their efficacy and strategies for making them better. The world would run so much more smoothly if it was checklist-ified. Please let him convince you too?

Format: nonfiction. Subject: philosophy, science. Rating: 3/3

Tortall and Other Lands, Tamora Pierce

A bildungsroman is not properly a genre – it’s more of an essence of story – tracing a coming of age story. (Bildungsroman, in the grand tradition of German compound words, literally translates as “story of formation, education, or culture.”) A hefty proportion of children’s and YA literature (which you must know by now are a soft spot of mine) are bildungsroman stories, which I am sorry to say, is not a story concept I have thought about in the entire last year of writing about books. These stories, some spinoffs from Tamora Pierce’s expansive Tortall meta-series (seventeen books in five sub-series and counting) and some stand-alone, are almost entirely bildungsromans to some degree. I’m kicking myself for overlooking such an important story element for so long – especially because bildungsroman stories in general, and Pierce’s books in particular, were so important to my own coming of age. Every time I pick up another of Pierce’s books, it takes me back to my childhood and teen years so strongly that I find myself on a tiny coming-of-age journey again. Fortunately, my inner child is a renewable resource and all these comings of age will not deplete her.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: various. Format: short stories. Rating: 3/3

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