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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Fahrenheit 451

The latest of my "great" books is Fahrenheit 451. It's one of those books that I probably read at some point, but can't remember for sure.

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Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is another of the many, many non-fiction books recommended to me by my friend Daniel, and it's a very interesting read.  Henrietta had an incredibly aggressive form of cervical cancer.  Cells that were taken while treating that cancer became the first known "immortal" cells, meaning that, given an appropriate culture medium, they could infinitely divide and create new cells.  The book has three fundamental components.

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The first component is about the medical implications of those cells, which would be hard to overstate.  Doctors had long sought after a viable way to study human cells that hadn't just been taken from the donor.  This predated the ability to freeze cells and   even any kind of standard way to culture cells.  The cell line taken from Henrietta revolutionized medical research.  It was essential to the creation of the Polio vaccine along with other treatments.  The cell line also managed to destroy years and millions of dollars worth of other research.

The second main topic in the book is medical ethics.  Henrietta had no idea he cells were being taken for research.  Her family only learned how significant her cells were after she died.  That cell line generated millions, perhaps billions, in profits for various parties. and Henrietta's family never got a cent.  There is a large discussion of how patients generally, and African Americans in particular, were treated as guinea pigs by their physicians in the mid-twentieth century.  The author also discusses how, even in the present day, patients have little to no right to control what happens to materials taken from them during the course of medical procedures.

The entire book is really structured around the third element, the actual life of Henrietta Lacks.  The author had to do fairly exhaustive research and even then there are a lot of unknowns.  Sadly, but for her cells, Henrietta would have largely been forgotten after her death.  Her race and socio-economic status didn't predispose her to having many written records and interactions the family had with the medical and legal establishments didn't make them inclined to share.

As you've probably guessed, I would highly recommend this book.  Despite the subject matter, it is very accessible and a fairly easy read.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Golden Bowl

In my quest to read the "great books", I've read a few books with narrative styles that seemed to prioritize confusing or innovative writing over conveying a story.  The worst offenders were Ulysses and Infinite Jest.  The Golden Bowl isn't nearly as bad as those, but it certainly fits in the general category.  Even those praising Henry James' novel have described it as "labyrinthine and claustrophobic". It's also not an upbeat story.  It revolves primarily around jealousy, adultery, and betrayal.

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The novel seems to be considered significant because it delves so deeply into the consciousness of the characters.  His use of language while exploring the characters' consciousness is fairly unique.  While I found it interesting at first, it was ultimately exhausting to read.  Take this quote: "He found himself therefore saying, with gaiety, even to Fanny Assingham, for their common, concerned glance at Eaton Square, the glance that was so markedly never, as it might have been, a glance at Portland Place".  Now picture that at the beginning of a paragraph that extends for pages in a book that's nearly 800 pages long.

I think one problem I've had with the books that are more difficult to read is that they're not compatible with what I'm trying to do with my reading.  I'm trying to sit down a read books and absorb a story, while I might really need to spend three to four times as long as I would on a normal book of similar size in order to really appreciate what the author has done.  Instead, I move forward at the best pace I can while reading everything.  This leads to the book being obtuse and frustrating and makes just want to end it.  

I can't recommend The Golden Bowl.  Maybe that's only because I haven't given it a fair shake.  I still think Ulysses was a cruel prank by Joyce.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment was my second book by Fyodor Dostoevsky and I wasn't terribly impressed.  It's probably my lack of sophistication as a reader.  I didn't enjoy The Brothers Karamazov either, but I still found it to be very well written with very memorable scenes.  Crime and Punishment is structurally interesting but, while dealing with fairly similar subject matter, lacks characters that are nearly as interesting as those in The Brothers Karamazov.

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The protagonist, Raskolnikov, decides that the true geniuses of society are justified in taking any action, no matter how repugnant, so long as it is needed for them to accomplish great things.  Conveniently, Raskolnikov is such a genius.  Using his newly rationalized freedom, he decides to kill an old woman who is also a pawn broker.  He botches it up in a few different ways and proceeds to lose his mind.  Most of the time his actions (and the actions of others) made no sense to me.  There are interrogations that seem interesting but peter out to nothing.  It's not clear to me that Raskolnikov ever felt remorse of any kind.

This book presents the same obstacles that I find in every Russian novel.  Every character has three or more names, none of them familiar or easy to remember.  There are situations that don't come across easily over the gap of time and culture.  I'm glad I read Tolstoy first so that I knew I could enjoy Russian literature and wasn't scared entirely away by Dostoevsky.

The World According to Garp

The World according to Garp is a truly bizarre story.  It generally fallows the life of Garp, a man named after the mentally disabled veteran that his mother raped to conceive him.  It's also about the books written by Garp and his mother.  I can't go into too much detail without spoiling it, but I will say that I enjoyed it and had trouble putting it down.  It's not for everyone, though.  It's fairly graphic when it comes to sex and the injuries suffered by some of the characters are not for the squeamish.  I think people with strong feelings about feminism (whatever they might be) will also be uncomfortable at times.