Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (4/5)

29 Sep

I have a long history with this book. In college, I worked for a textbook rental click-and-mortar. We catered largely to the big state school on the other side of town. One of their freshman classes had to read this book. We had several hundred copies, more than we could rent. They filled the shelves and seemed to be part of every order at the beginning of the semester. But I never cracked it open. I knew the cover and author but nothing about what was inside the book. I was so excited when my book club selected the title. I was finally going to read ‘the orange book.’

Cover Image via Goodreads

Cover Image via Goodreads

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Summary from Goodreads:

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

This was one of those non-fiction books where you think it has to be made up. Henrietta’s story is so bizarre and Skloot tells it in a very conversational way. She made advanced science readable and used the story of the Lacks family to bring the debate on cell and DNA ownership to a point that’s hard to ignore. It wove through time well and told a good parallel story between the modern ramifications of Henrietta’s cancer both good and bad.

Skloot brought the Lacks family alive for me, especially Deborah and Zakariyya. It’s obvious Skloot and Deborah had a special relationship and I loved how respectful Rebecca was of the family and how she earned their trust. She became her own character in the story, a surprise to me. I liked that her journey to finding the history and truth was a part of the history.

George Gey was the most interesting person to me. He was a villain to the Lacks family but in his field, he was a pioneer. He never patented his discoveries in cell culture and he didn’t charge colleagues for samples of Henrietta’s cells at first. He went into debt to advance science. I thought it was a great anecdote that when he was undergoing surgery, he wanted his cells put into a culture so he could have a GeGe strain. That made him seem very much a crazy scientist.

The confusion Deborah and her family faced when it came to understanding her mother’s cells struck me. It reminded me of trying to understand biology growing up and I was so moved by Deborah’s thirst to learn as much as she could and make sure her children learned.

Rebecca Skloot Image via PBS

Rebecca Skloot
Image via PBS

I was moved when Deborah and Zakariyya went to see HeLa cells at Johns Hopkins. I thought it was so great of Lengauer to take the time and show her children what their mother’s cells had done for science and to show them what of her was still around. He had to be very patient but I’m sure for him, it was like meeting a celebrity. What an amazing experience.

Reading about Henrietta’s early life was hard for me. The sexual abuse, living conditions, and attitudes of her family as she grew up and started her family were rough. No part of me envied her. It was worse seeing some of those attitudes and behaviors perpetuated into the later generations, like when Deborah’s son was sent to jail. Knowing that the lives of people can be so difficult as an abstract idea is hard enough but reading about the details of it is so much worse.

 

The biggest lesson I got from this book was giving. Henrietta was always giving of her food and her home. Gey was giving of his knowledge. Deborah learned to be giving of herself and respect what her mother did for science. That was the hardest lesson for her family to learn and it took them a long time to come to terms with it. I think Deborah had to teach them that lesson because Henrietta wasn’t there to do it herself.

Writer’s Takeaway: I loved Skloot’s ability to weave history, modern narrative, and her own journey into one book. It was fun to read and I learned a lot. History is only boring if you write it in a boring way. Skloot did a wonderful job of bringing the past alive and weaving it with an adventure.

Enjoyable and educational. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Review: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot | Ephemereality

WWW Wednesday, 28-September-2016

28 Sep

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


aristotleCurrently reading: I made some minor progress on In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson during my lunch breaks. I just passed 60% so maybe another two months? Haha. It’s really good, don’t get me wrong!
On hold with World Without End by Ken Follett.
I needed a new audiobook and I decided to give Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz a try. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things about this book on others’ posts and I need some YA in my life. Great so far, I’m really loving it.
I finally started Slade House by David Mitchell. No opinion on if I like it yet. I’m hoping to speed through this one and make a little time for a book of my choice off my shelves. We’ll see if life will let that happen.

Henrietta LacksRecently finished: I finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot just in time for book club! I finished it Sunday night and we meet Mondays. Phew! I really enjoyed the story and I’ll have a review of it up tomorrow!
SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner was also a win for me. I loved the first one and this was equally enjoyable. My post went up yesterday so check that out and let me know if you had to suddenly go out and buy it.

stillaliceReading Next: I’m going to get a jump-start on my next book club book. We’re reading Still Alice by Lisa Genova. I’m a little iffy on this book because it seems like it might be really sad and I don’t want sad! Fingers crossed the ending doesn’t make me cry.


I have a class after work Wednesdays through November so please be patient with me due to delayed responses. I’m checking as often as I can.

Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: Super Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (5/5)

27 Sep

I read the first Freakonomics book back in 2013. I listened to the whole audio file in three days. I devoured it and I loved it. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to look for another book until a few months back when it popped up on my radar. I don’t remember if it was Hoopla searching or Goodreads browsing, but it came up and I knew I had to read it. While waiting for my hold on World Without End to come back seemed as good a time as any.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

Summary from Goodreads:

SuperFreakonomics challenges the way we think all over again, exploring the hidden side of everything with such questions as:

How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?
Why are doctors so bad at washing their hands?
How much good do car seats do?
What’s the best way to catch a terrorist?
Did TV cause a rise in crime?
What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway deaths have in common?
Are people hard-wired for altruism or selfishness?
Can eating kangaroo save the planet?
Which adds more value: a pimp or a Realtor?

Levitt and Dubner mix smart thinking and great storytelling like no one else, whether investigating a solution to global warming or explaining why the price of oral sex has fallen so drastically. By examining how people respond to incentives, they show the world for what it really is – good, bad, ugly, and, in the final analysis, super freaky.

I loved this book. I liked the first one so maybe I went in biased, but this was a great read. I was so enthused about it that I was able to interest my coworker and I might get him to sign up for a library card (yay)! Levitt and Dubner talk about how only one side is presented so I have to take their side with the same skepticism. Really enjoyable read. I liked how all the stories tie together at the end of the chapter. So good!

I thought the chapter about car seats was the most interesting. I work in an automotive field so I could understand a lot of the stories about independent testing labs and I thought the ultimate proposal to make backseat seatbelts fit for a younger passenger is a great solution. I brought it up to the same coworker and it made him think a lot, too.

There was one tidbit that struck close to home for me, which was about the rate of birth defects in women who fasted for Ramadan during the first month of their pregnancy. The rates were the same for a Muslim country in Africa (I think it was Southern Somalia) and Detroit. I had that one figured out before Dubner read the answer. Go me!

The discussion on global warming/cooling was my least favorite. There’s a lot of literature published about global warming and I thought the writers were very selective about what they choose to use in their stories. Of all the book, I felt this part was most biased toward the writers’ friends and their research.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by co-author Stephen Dubner. I thought Dubner was a good choice to narrate the story and I’m glad he was chosen. I found this audiobook on Hoopla and it’s had a high number of instances where the authors narrated the audiobook. I’m liking this trend.

Levitt and Dubner always want you to think, “Huh, I never considered looking at it that way.” I love that. They want to create inquisitive minds and show that economics isn’t a bunch of boring old men making predictions about the price of oil. I bet there are a lot of fields that are more fun than we think. Maybe HR will be next (my coworkers and I are planning a You Can’t Make This Up book).

Writer’s Takeaway: One of my favorite parts of this book was how everything connected. The afterward even ended in a reference to a previous joke. All of their loose ends were tied up and I think fiction writers need to be sure to be as consistent. I liked sometimes not knowing where a side story was going but being able to trust it would all come around in the end.

I highly recommend this for those skeptical about reading nonfiction. It’s a great read. Five out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner | Kvams
Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner | Sam Still Reading
SuperFreakonomics- Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner | The Story’s Story

Writing Speed

26 Sep

One of my book club friends sent me this link to a great Infographic about how long it took writers to write certain novels. To say I’m jealous of John Boyne for penning his novel is an understatement. There are some obvious patterns in this graphic where longer novels take loner to write. That seems pretty simple. Though, there are notable exceptions. Fifty Shades of Grey seems long for the time it took to write and Catcher In the Rye a bit short for its 10 years time.

I’m guessing that these numbers show the time needed for a raw first draft, the time it takes to get the story from the writers head to the page. This doesn’t include editing, finding an agent, signing with a publisher, etc. Boyle didn’t sit down to write and end up with a novel 2.5 days later. Likewise, Martin probably took more than 5 years to get the first of his books written and it seems like it will take him longer to finish the series.

Does writing speed matter? I think it’s the book that really matters, so why do we put any importance on speed? We’re after a good story after all. Though, I’m not a series writer. When you’re writing a series and people are waiting for your next installment, if a TV writer is waiting to make an adaptation, does your speed matter then? Most would say yes.

How do you feel about writing speed? I think I write slow, but I do a lot of other things that distract me from writing. Are you a fast writer?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Discussion: Do you change your world to fit fan demands?

22 Sep

My husband sent me this article from Vox. It talks about the homosexual undertones in the newest Harry Potter installment and the subtextual content of the previous seven books. It’s an interesting argument to be sure, but it got me thinking.

Rowling originally wrote the series for young children (I believe I was in 4th grade when I read the first one). Now, some of you might argue with me here, but my experience was that I wasn’t introduced to homosexuality outright until I was in the 7th or 8th grade. This isn’t to say that my experience is normal or that this is right, it’s just my experience. I grew up with no gay relatives or close family friends that necessitated it being explained to me that not every house was like mine, the assumption I believe many of us make growing up. Now, I’m going to extrapolate here that I’m not the only one who grew up this way though obviously, not everyone did. Breaching the topic of homosexuality can be more delicate in some homes than others and, like ‘the talk,’ I think many parents want to talk to their children about these topics before they come up in social situations. The age at which parents do this, I believe, depends on the culture the child is raised in and the social context of that childhood.

Feel free to argue, this is a set of assumptions based on my (American Midwestern) upbringing. It allows me to make this next assumption.

Because homosexuality can be introduced to children at different ages through adolescence depending on upbringing, I don’t believe it’s common in books aimed at middle-grade reading levels. I’ve seen a surge in YA books with homosexual protagonists or main themes, but I haven’t seen many middle-grade books. I think this is for the reasons I outlined above.

Going back to Harry.

If the first book is aimed at a middle-grade audience, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Rowling to have excluded homosexual characters from her book. Sexuality in general was not stressed in the novel. Besides parents, there are no references to romantic relationships among the core group of characters and because we looked through Harry’s eyes, any on the periphery didn’t play a main role. Looking at the first book alone, I don’t think many would argue that Rowling stuck to the expected content of a book aimed at that age group.

But there are seven books, not one. And as the characters grew up, so did the reading level and intended audience. 19 years later, we’re reading a book where the 11-year-old who lived under the stairs is the father of an angry 13-year-old. Harry grew up. Should the world have ‘grown up’ too?

The article criticizes Rowling for writing a highly white heteronormative series. With a few exceptions (Dean, the Patil twins, Cho), this is a fairly accurate assumption. Dumbledore was never explicitly gay in the books and fans only know of this because of interviews Rowling later gave.

Here’s my question: Should Rowling have added more explicit descriptions of some characters homosexuality in later books?

PRO: Her audience matured and would have been able to deal with the changing characters as their own worldview was changing as they aged. By the time Cursed Child came out this year, many of us who remember reading the books as they were released are old enough to have children of our own (though some have turtles and that’s totally fine). A lack of homosexual characters is not reflective of reality and we’re to believe that wizards are born the same way as Muggles and would, therefore, have similar instances of homosexuality in their culture. Rowling’s world is not representative of modern Britain.

CON: Rowling started the book series to appeal to a young audience. Adding explicit references to homosexual characters could deter parents from having children enjoy the series at a young age. After the world was established as heteronormative, adding homosexual references would have been forced and might have led to inconsistencies in Rowling’s characterization of many main characters.

I’m unsure what to think about the instance of Harry Potter. As for myself, it’s making me look at my writing and wonder if I’ve included the diversity fans would expect from my stories in terms of sexual preference. Do I have the diversity of characters in terms of race, educational background, religion, etc. that my story deserves or would be expected to have? Should I look at my characters in terms of what (possible) fans might expect from my world or are they my characters to form as I originally saw them? Has being a white heterosexual Catholic tinged my character selection to a point where it’s arguably skewed? What steps should I/would I be asked to take to correct this? Would I be getting too far away from ‘write what you know?’

I think this topic can be applied to all kinds of diversity in a huge number of books. I’m curious how you all feel about this and I love using Harry as a common launching point for discussion. Please be kind and realize we all come from strongly different backgrounds.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 21-September-2016

21 Sep

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


superfreakonomicsCurrently reading: Again, nothing with In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson this week. The fall is ridiculously stressful for me with school and my husband going back to work and coaching. I haven’t had the spare moments to pick this up and it’s really showing.
On hold with World Without End by Ken Follett.
I’m really loving The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Skloot writes a great narrative and I’m not minding the jumps back and forth in time as much as I thought I would. I hope to finish this up this week but it’s a bit longer than I think I can manage. We’ll see what happens.
Not surprisingly, I’m in love with SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Just like the first book, I’m constantly going ‘WHAT?!’ in my car while listening. I got a coworker to listen with me while driving back from a job fair and I think I hooked him. Win.

Recently finished: Nothing this week! I’m plugging along after finishing two last week. I did post a review of Boy, Snow, Bird by  Helen Oyeyemi last Thursday. Go give that a look and I hope to have more up soon.

slade-houseReading Next:  Slade House by David Mitchell is on my bedside table so I’m eagerly awaiting it. One of you gave me a negative review of it last week so I’m nervous but I’m hoping that because it’s shorter I have a chance. Fingers crossed.


I have a class after work Wednesdays through November so please be patient with me due to delayed responses. I’m checking as often as I can.

Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Meeting Anthony Ervin (Chasing Water)

20 Sep

If you read the title of this post and thought, “Who is Anthony Ervin?” then you would be like every single coworker of mine I told in a huge rush of excitement that I couldn’t stay late because I was going to hear Anthony Ervin speak. Ervin, at age 35, won the gold medal in Rio for the men’s’ 50m Freestyle event. He also won the gold 16 years earlier, in Sydney 2000, tying Gary Hall Jr. Here’s what happened in Rio.

http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/anthony-ervin-wins-olympic-gold-splash-and-dash

Thank you NBC Olympic coverage for not making this available on YouTube. Anyway. I’ve swum since I was 9 and I was watching the coverage the night Ervin won. I was at my parent’s cottage with 7 friends and I insisted on getting NBC going so we could watch the coverage. It took twenty minutes before we figured out how to do it but man, I’m so glad. I was screaming the whole race, cheering Ervin and Adrian and I was so excited when Ervin won. At age 35, he’s not your average sprinter and his story is crazy.

img_3324Flash forward not even a week. I got the monthly newsletter from Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI. Yes, I know I post about them a lot. One of the highlighted author appearances was Anthony Ervin! He had a memoir out, Chasing Water, that he would be signing. I texted a swimming friend I’ve known since I was 9 when I started and we both looked forward to the date.

At dinner before the event, I asked my friend why the man I assumed was a ghost writer, Constantine Markides, was listed on the cover and why he would be appearing at the event that night. I’d never known a ghost writer to be so prominently credited in a sports memoir. My friend explained that Markides wrote at least half the book and that the format was a back-and-forth between Markides and Ervin, narrating what was happening in Ervin’s life as well as swimming in general. Markides was a swimmer himself and a writer. He was a good voice to add some context to the story.

Anthony Ervin

Anthony Ervin

We got to the event with time to get second-row seats. Half of the chairs were filled by people we were 100% positive were swimmers. A nearby school’s girls’ team showed up with wet hair and warm-ups on. This was our kind of crowd! The owner of the store, Mike, got up and introduced Ervin and Markides. It turns out Mike was a collegiate swimmer himself and knew both men from his time reporting for USA Swimming magazine. I love this bookstore even more now. Ervin and Markides each read a section of the book about the experimental World Sprint Team and Mike led them in a moderated discussion about its creation and their relationship.

Ervin was very down to earth. After watching interviews with other swimmers (not to be named here) during the coverage, I was amazed at how eloquent Ervin and Markides were and how he viewed his win as a privilege he worked hard for, not something he deserved because he trained. He spoke about how his achievements in the pool are so often a foil of his life and he wanted his readers to see his changing identity. He saw every performance (swim) as a rehearsal for the one that was coming next. Looking at it this way, being on the Olympic stage was something he’d been training for since his first appearance in 2000 through the Omaha trials. he didn’t want to write a conventional sports biography and teaming with Markides seemed like a good way to do this. The two wrote an article together for Rolling Stone in 2012 which led them to form the relationship needed for this book. They went on a writers’ retreat in Markides’ home state of Maine for two weeks where they were able to pound out a good chunk of this book. I’m amazed Ervin was able to get away from training for that long, but we were assured the retreat house had a gym.

For anyone else who’s a big swim fan out there, you’ll be excited to hear Conner Jaeger came to support his Team USA teammate. Jaeger won the Silver in Rio for the men’s’ 1500m freestyle. (http://stream.nbcolympics.com/swimming-day-8-finals starting at 14:20, end around 30 minutes.)

Me, Ervin, my friend, and Markides

Me, Ervin, my friend, and Markides

Ervin and Markides signed books for everyone who came. They were really great, taking their time to talk with everyone and talk swimming with most of us. He brought his two medals (from the 50 and from the 4×100 freestyle relay [he swam the prelim, not the final]) and let us wear them! Those things are a lot heavier than I thought they would be. How cool is that? (Side note, Ervin sold his 2000 medal online and gave the proceeds of over $17,000 to charity so these are the only two he has.)

img_3333It was such a cool night and a great chance to meet a swimming legend. It even brought in my love of books which was even better! This was the first time I went to a book signing for an athlete but I think it was a good experience for me. Maybe there will be more of these in the future? Maybe.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: Boy, Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

19 Sep Cover image via Goodreads

The day after I finished reading Boy, Snow, Bird, I was sitting in Starbucks writing my review and knowing I was heading to our book discussion. I always try to write reviews before my book club meets because, many times, that changes my feelings on the book. However, I don’t really feel much differently about Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi after discussing it with my book club. Many of the others were caught off guard by the ending and how quickly it came about. We know that some of her fans like this, but we were frustrated and confused. We wished it would tie up nicely. The insight one of our members gave was that Snow was told she was going to live with her aunt for just a week and she never came back. If Boy is taking the girls away for ‘just’ a week, we don’t think they’re ever coming home. A few readers compared the book to The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman, which we read about a year ago. I think it’s a fair comparison but if you read my review, you’ll see I wasn’t a fan of that book either. While some liked the book more after our discussion, I wasn’t one of them.

Newspaper reviews of this book were very positive. Many of us felt lost. There were several times we just didn’t ‘get’ what was going on and through our discussion, we realized it was because there were often several layers to the plot, comparisons we didn’t see, and thus what happened didn’t really make sense. We didn’t get deep as the reader wanted us to. The majority of readers missed the comparison to Snow White. Oyeyemi said she found the original Snow White an odd character because when she was sent to live with the dwarves, she seemed to be a ‘blank slate’ with little reaction to being sent away. I’d say Snow had slightly more emotions about being sent away, but now many.

There were times we felt the plot was a bit out of line from what we know of American culture in that era. Wearing the US flag, nose piercings, and hoolahoops didn’t seem to line up. The book covers three decades, so maybe we were a bit lost with what time it was. Maybe the author’s background made the US an odd choice for a setting. She was born in Africa and lives in Europe. What kind of research did she do in American culture for this book? Another thought was that she wanted it to feel like a fairytale and grounding the book in culture wasn’t important for that. It was better to create a utopia for the characters.

Some readers found the book hard to read because of the ugly reminders of real life. Sending away a child, parental abuse, and disliking a child or grandchild are ugly realities of the world we live in. The book spoke a lot about wealth, marriage, race, beauty, and motherhood, but it used ugly examples of human flaws to bring these up.

We wondered if the town ever realized Arturo and the Whitmans were black. The doctor at the hospital thought Boy had an affair. Did the rest of the town? This is never addressed head-on. Olivia continued to host her gatherings of neighbor women. Did they let go of their prejudices and include her or never accept that she was a black woman?

The snake seemed like an odd image through the book. The story Mia and Boy told each other involved a woman with a snake coming out of her heart. The woman couldn’t be changed by a magician. When Arturo gave Boy a bracelet with the same image, it struck us as an odd choice for someone he loved. Maybe, we thought, Arturo knew she was like the woman in the story and wouldn’t be changed when someone told her something to try to change her, like finding out her husband’s black.

We tried to reason Frank’s hatred for Boy. We think Frank had a dissociative personality disorder (spit-personality) and that while he was pregnant with Boy, he fluctuated back and forth between his masculine and feminine personalities. His male personality won in the end and despised everything feminine, possibly as a repercussion for the rape Francis suffered. In a hope to keep a daughter from being too feminine, he named her Boy.

Frank was looking in a mirror when he had his first break. The image continued on through the book. We felt that the reflection characters saw represented how they thought the world saw them. Boy thought the mirror was her friend because she felt isolated. Snow and Bird thought the world didn’t see them. Maybe this is because of the status of women in that time. More likely, it was because they felt the world overlooked them because they were black. The world would see them if they passed but once Bird was born with dark skin and Snow was raised by her black relatives, they weren’t passing, they were out and they were overlooked. We wondered how Olivia saw herself in the mirror.

The women in this book had polarized relationship. There was the wicked stepmother in both Olivia and Boy. Whereas Boy is described as so sweet and beautiful, she acts very harshly and wicket. The blonde hair of Boy and Snow’s dark hair are compared often, as is the angelic feminism of Boy and the tomboy attitude of Bird and Frank. Women were very key and central in the book while men seemed to disappear into the background.

I can’t find the page, but someone read a quote about Sidonie where she was described as not wanting to come inside the house (or store?) but how she didn’t want to stay outside. We thought this was a good analogy for how Clara, Bird, and Snow didn’t like the negative prejudice and discrimination of being black but didn’t want to pass as white either. They were in the middle, especially Snow, who could go either way depending on who she was standing next to. It was a battle of what was best for her and what was easy.

This wasn’t my favorite book, but few are. Our next selection has a slightly spooky/eerie theme to get us in the mood for Halloween. And best of all, it’s short.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (3/5)

15 Sep

This book caught my eye at an indy bookstore about two years ago. I picked it up and a friend of mine said, “That’s a good book. I liked it.” This, for me, is the best endorsement of a book there is. No, I didn’t buy it. I’m cheap, sorry. BUT! When it showed up on my book club’s list for September, I was pumped and snatched up my library copy and got to reading.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Summary from Goodreads:

In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.

A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.

The summary actually explains some of the book better than I was able to understand it on my own. Huh, maybe I should start reading those. Though not reading it made it a surprise for me when Bird was born dark-skinned. I wasn’t expecting that and it as a good twist to the book. I liked the first part that Boy narrated. Her story was fun to me and it wasn’t until Bird started narrating that we got the sense of magical realism, something I routinely dislike in books. Alas, this was another time I just couldn’t jump on board with the magical realism in Bird’s word. Though some of it can easily be attributed to a young girl’s imagination, it was a bit much for me. I was intrigued at the end with the final twist (that I’m not going to say) but I thought Oyeyemi ended the book really suddenly without getting to talk about it much. The ending was very abrupt to me and didn’t wrap up the story much at all. I still feel like I should be able to pick the book up and keep reading a while longer. That was really disappointing to me.

With a few instances of the supernatural, I found the characters very grounded, especially Arturo and Snow. Bird and Boy were a lot alike with their heads slightly in the clouds. I liked Snow a lot and I kept hoping she would narrate at least the final part of the book. I’d say she was my favorite though Arturo was the most interesting. He lived his entire life pretending to be someone he wasn’t for acceptance and because his mother decided he would live that way. I think that’s so sad. Maybe he would have rather live as a black man or maybe it was what he wanted. He didn’t have a choice. He didn’t put up much fuss when Snow is sent away which surprised me. I guess he was more worried about keeping who he had and could cope with giving up who he used to have. I felt so bad for Snow. It made me hate Boy who I’d really liked up until that point.

Snow seemed a victim of circumstance and privilege to me. She didn’t do anything to make Boy mad, at least as far as I could see. And when she was living with her Aunt and Uncle, she had to relearn her identity and how she fit into the world. That would be so difficult. I think she turned out wonderfully, especially considering the special treatment she always seemed to get. I found it odd everyone loved her and wanted to see her, but no one really wanted to talk to her. She was someone they wanted to look at and that was all. I think her father and grandmothers were the only ones who didn’t feel that way about her. The poor thing.

If the magical realism in Bird’s story can be attributed to an overactive imagination, I can deal relate to her. I was always inventing people and monsters when I was a girl. I found reasons to be brave in my invisible friends when I needed to and heard monsters under my bed when I wanted my mom to come in and lull me to sleep. I think a lot of the things she said can be attributed to being lonely. She had no sister to keep her company and it sounds like Louis was her only friend and one she made later in life. She was aimless.

I liked Boy’s story before she married Arturo. The Rat Catcher was interesting and her budding relationship with Mia was interesting to me. Boy was independent and strong and I really liked her. She seemed to be searching for something and I couldn’t tell if she’d found it in Arturo but it was still fun to read.

Bird’s story did not do it for me, unfortunately. I wanted to like her but her voice was too childish for me to enjoy sandwiched between Boy’s mature storyline. If it was more grown-up, it would have been unbelievable so I’m not sure what I would recommend doing in this case. It seemed almost like two different stories because the voices were so different, a little reminiscent of Cloud Atlas. I would have liked to get Snow’s POV instead because she would have a slightly more mature voice.

I think having the voice of Snow or Bird was necessary in this book about identity. Boy didn’t have to see herself as an outcast or a person of suspicion the way her daughter, step-daughter, and husband did. The family was outed when Bird was born but instead of sending her away as Arturo’s sister had been sent away, she sent Snow to live with her aunt. Boy blew the secret out of the water, having no problem doing it. But when her own secret was blown out of the water, was she brave enough to face it? Unfortunately, we don’t know because the book ended so quickly. I got the impression she was going to face Frank, but we can’t be too sure. Again, I wish there was more so I could judge Boy on her bravery in facing situations like the one she created.

Writer’s Takeaway: Changing narrators can be a challenge, especially when the two are drastically different like Boy and Bird. There are some books I’ve read where it works, and some where it falls flat. This one didn’t work for me. I think the more similar the narrators, the easier it is. I’m thinking of Silver Sparrow or Eleanor & Park which I loved. These two were too different for the novel to feel fluid and coherent.

An up-and-down read for me. Three out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi | The Writes of Women
Boy, Snow, Bird (Book Review) | Liu’s Views
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi | The California Journal of Women Writers
‘It’s a stonker’ – Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi | Bookmunch

WWW Wednesday, 14-September-2016

14 Sep

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


Henrietta LacksCurrently reading: Total fail on reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson this week. I haven’t had a lot of chances to read on my phone. No doctor’s appointments or a lot of waiting this week. I’m not worried, this book is good whenever I get back to it.
Still waiting for World Without End by Ken Follett. None too pleased but being patient.
I’ve just begin The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It’s too soon to say much but I’m hoping this lives up to the hype I’ve gotten around it.
I needed to grab another audiobook and I decided on SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I listened to the first one two or three years back and I’ve been excited ever since I heard that there’s a sequel out there. I’m pumped to get further on this one.

BoySnowRecently finished: Two done! The first is Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi which I finished Saturday evening. I liked it enough, but I found the ending really disappointing. My book club met on Monday to talk about it so expect a book club reflection early next week. I gave the book Three out of Five stars.
I also finished The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo on Friday. This book feel really flat for me. I got a few good organizing tips from it and I’ve started throwing out a lot of things and putting some clothes in my ‘donate’ pile if I don’t wear them a lot or at all. So I guess I got something out of it and I gave it Two out of Five Stars. My review went up yesterday so check that out.

slade-houseReading Next: My next book club book will be Slade House by David Mitchell. I’m a little nervous about this one. This is the same author who wrote Cloud Atlas and those of you who have been around here for a while might remember my long battle with that book. I’m glad this one is much shorter and I’m told it’s a Halloween-ish feeling book so I’m looking forward to that.


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!