Saturday, November 19, 2016

Five Quarters of an Orange, by Joanne Harris

I would never have found this book if not for book club, and I really rather liked it. Let's dig into the nuances of that assessment, shall we?

Joanne Harris hit the jackpot with her book Chocolat, a bit of magical realism with a decidedly hedonistic bent. Made into a movie starring the luminous Juliette Binoche and a delicious Johnny Depp, it was a delightful fairy tale that was completely grounded in the petty feuds and the judgmental religiosity of a small French town. The time period is left charmingly vague--it looked vaguely mid-20th century, but could have been set in almost any decade.

Chocolat dealt with women's roles in a male dominated village, issues of racism, domestic violence, and moral rigidity enforced by religious intolerance, but a happy ending was engineered by the protagonist's magical chocolate shop. As I said--a fairy tale grounded in reality.

Five Quarters of an Orange revisits that format, although less successfully over all. We are back in a rural French village, but in two specific time periods--the Occupation by the Germans in WWII, and the present day. The narrator is Framboise Dartigan, who was a nine year old during the events of the war, and who returned as a widow to reclaim her childhood home, while hiding her identity from the villagers who are largely the same people as when she was a child.

There are hints of a terrible secret from the past, and family conflict in the present day that threatens to unmask her true identity. There is a fairy tale element--the existence of a giant pike that lurks in the depths of the Loire. Local legend says that whoever catches Old Mother will be granted one wish. Framboise is determined to catch that fish.

The Dartigan family are named after fruits, and there is a lot of space devoted to Framboise's mother's recipes and Framboise's cooking--food is again a major element of the book.

Parts of this work very well, parts are frustratingly underwritten.

Once untangled from the bouncing around in time, the plot is rather straightforward. Framboise and her brother and sister fall under the sway of a charismatic young German officer named Tomas Leibniz. They pass all the village gossip to him, in return for luxuries that he can procure for them. Framboise doesn't care for the movie magazines and cigarettes--she imagines that she is bonding with Tomas on a more authentic basis. They are both fishers, after all.

Here is where I have to call for a time-out, because this seems like a major miscalculation. Framboise is nine years old. NINE YEARS OLD. It is 1942, in rural France. This is NOT a case where children are immersed in hyper-sexuality and I just don't accept that a nine year old has sexual feelings for an adult male.

I WOULD accept that she was love-starved, was looking for a father figure, or validation, or something. I am not okay with her being presented as romantically interested in a Nazi.

Back to the plot--there is a brief moment of concern that maybe the gossip they are feeding to Tomas is getting people sent to concentration camps, but that tension lasts about a half a page before being dissipated. Tomas is using the dirt the kids give him to blackmail the residents and he is skimming from the requisitions to pad his own accounts.

Things start to fall apart--Framboise's older sister is (almost-but-not-quite) raped by the Germans, an old man ends up dead. The nascent village Resistance is revealed. Mother Dartigan's migraines require morphine that she gets from Tomas--possibly as a payment for her silence about the assault. Tomas makes plans to leave the village, Framboise is determined he should stay (or run away with her) so she catches the Old Mother pike, wishes that Tomas would stay forever, and the wish backfires. Tomas drowns while helping Framboise pull in her trap--the one that Old Mother is actually caught in. So technically she gets her wish--Tomas does not leave.

The three kids panic about the body being linked to them, so they shot Tomas in the head so it looks like an execution. The Germans believe this story, round up the Resistance members and shoot them all in the village square. The locals blame Mother Dartigan, accuse her of being Tomas's mistress, and storm the farm and torch it. The family escapes and flees.

This is the climax of the book, which is as it should be dramatically, which means that all the contemporary family drama is incredibly mundane in comparison. Framboise's older brother sold the family farm to her and then died, leaving a son and daughter-in-law who offer a kind of existential threat to her anonymity. This second generation wants the recipes, wants a career, wants to publish the "true story" of what happened in 1942, none of which Framboise wants. At best, this is a tool for creating tension and mystery--what happened that was so terrible that Framboise is hiding?

Unfortunately, the larger question is: Why does Framboise even want to live in this stupid small village? Once she is there, she is misanthropic in the extreme, operating a tiny restaurant where she refuses to talk to the patrons even. The mechanics of the story are too visible. It's like Harris needed her narrator to be in the village in order to tell the story, but never created a character-based reason for that decision.

This is an ongoing problem with the book--it just needs to bake longer or something? The elements are good, the story is worth telling, the structure is sound, but the whole does not even equal the sum of the parts.

Part of the problem is that the characters are underdeveloped, so it is hard to care--or even remember them. The various townspeople are generically "rural" and "petty" with no real reason to care about them one way or another. Ten people are shot by firing squad due to the blundering of Framboise and her siblings, but they never really came to life so it is hard to care.

I have already expressed my problems with Tomas and Framboise's passion for him. Her siblings are not served by the time jump. Cassis is casually cruel but also dangerously exciting when Framboise is nine, but in the contemporary sections, he is just feeble. None of the characteristics of his youth survive the transition, and there is no explanation of why. Reinette is even more poorly served--she exists to be young and sexy, to be interested in movie glamour magazines, and then to be assaulted. Once that plot obligation is fulfilled, she disappears. In the contemporary sections, she is in a nursing home, apparently completely senile.

There are hints that Harris had more in mind for these characters. She details conflict among the there of them due to the inequality of their mother's bequests. Reinette inherited a cellar of wine that is worth a great deal of money, that Framboise won't touch, that might be the object of Cassis's grasping son. . .a plot element that goes nowhere.

It's frustrating, because this book should be better than it is. It has all the ingredients, but the execution is poor--which is a fitting metaphor for a book that spends a lot of time talking about food.

I wish I liked this better than I do.

Friday, November 04, 2016

The Confession, by Charles Todd

I read this on the recommendation of my mother, who has excellent taste in reading material. However--and this is an important caveat--she consumes her Inspector Rutledge books in audio format, where they are read by the excellent actor Simon Prebble, and his mellifluous tones soothe her to sleep. I can imagine how delightful that is, and has given her many hours of enjoyment of this series.

Which is to say that this is not a book for reading, this is a book for sleeping through.

It's not actually terrible, and it has the bones of a much better novel. There are dangerous secrets worth killing for, there is emotional anguish and class resentment and the terrible beauty of the English marshlands.  Sadly, the writing manages to rob the action sequences of any excitement, flattens the characters to the point of them being fundamentally indistinguishable, which makes it hard to keep track of the suspects or the victims. Which makes the plot nearly impossible to keep track of--I think the mystery might be clever, or interesting, but since I could never quite tell who was dead and who was under suspicion, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Spoilers below--as I try to figure out what happened.

First off, I recognize that this is the fourteenth book in a series, and I have not read any of the others. It is unfair of me to complain that things that happened in other books aren't explained in this one, and I will try to avoid doing that. The central character is Inspector Ian Rutledge, of Scotland Yard, who has returned to the force after a traumatic experience in The Great War (WWI). It is now 1919, and he continues to wake from his nightmares screaming on a regular basis. He is a broken man who pushes himself to hide the PTSD so he can continue working. Work is the only thing he has to live for now.

A seminal event of his wartime was the death of a soldier under his command. Hamish MacLeod had been Rutledge's closest confidante, but when he refused a direct order, Rutledge was obliged to have him shot. Rutledge himself had to administer the final shot. Now he hears Hamish in the back of his mind, as real as if Hamish still lived. There are other recurring characters, but they don't play much of a role in this particular mystery--Rutledge's sister Frances, various members of Scotland Yard, and an official at the War Office who can be used to gather background information. None of them were really called on to do much, so I'll just assume they are old friends from earlier installments.

Rutledge himself is fine. He's not terribly interesting as a character, but that's fine as he's the glass through which we watch the murder investigation unfold. He's competent, he's got a back story with emotional resonance, he's fine.

Hamish is--a problem. At least in this book he is. I could accept him as the disembodied manifestation of Rutledge's guilty conscience, as a way to illuminate Rutledge's struggle to re-integrate into civilian society. But he's used in a strange way to advance the plot, commenting on the motivations of the suspects, warning Rutledge of things that  Rutledge himself can't see. Hamish is basically Rutledge's ride-along partner, being Watson to his Holmes. Which means he is more than just the symptom of PTSD--he is a character separate from Rutledge. In my opinion, he needs to be either explicitly supernatural, an actual ghost who is literally haunting his killer, or Rutledge just needs a constable to ride around with him that he can talk to.

It's the nature of the mystery genre. Clues have to be revealed slowly, and the reader has to be shown the detective's thought process without showing the solution too early. Questions like "Do you believe this suspect's story?" and "Do you think this person is guilty?" have to be asked and answered. For practical reasons, a mystery novel needs that character to keep the plot on track. In theory, it could all be done with internal dialogue, and Hamish is apparently an attempt to do that. As written, however, his comments are just too different, too independent to be the product of Rutledge's own thought processes.

Basically--Hamish needs to pick a lane. Either be a straight-up supernatural presence, and acknowledge that. Or, be a manifestation of Rutledge's trauma, but then you have to be less substantial ( and also--the attempts to render the Scottish accent is decidedly off-putting). Or just give Rutledge somebody to talk to--his Boswell, his Watson, or have him bring different people along. "Hamish" is just weird.


(Or, In which I try to tell several 2 dimensional silhouettes apart.)

The book begins with a "sensational" inciting incident--a dying man comes to Scotland Yard to confess to a murder. He quickly becomes evasive when pressed for details, then decides that this was a mistake. Rutledge is skeptical, but can't really do much in the absence of a body or a case. This man turns up dead a few days later, shot in the back of the head. Hurrah! Now there is a case!

In a surprise that shocks no one who has read a mystery novel before, the man isn't who he said he was. WHAAAAAT? You mean, men with fatal cancer diagnoses who decide to confess to vague crimes might not be totally truthful in all aspects?

In order to even begin to understand the convoluted story, we now leave the summary of the book and reconstruct the events in chronological time. All the the suspects and victims and most of what passes for investigation happen in and around a country manor house in Essex known as River's Edge. Owned by the Russell family, the patriarch (who is mostly skimmed over and ignored in the book) had a disastrous first marriage to an apparent gold digger who had a child after the divorce. Was that child Russell's son? Probably not, but also not definitively established.

He eventually became wealthy, married another woman-- mostly known as "Mrs. Russell," occasionally as Elizabeth--and they had a single son, Wyatt. They also acquired two wards/surrogate children/extended relation/cousins that they took in and raised as their own. Justin Fowler is a tragic boy whose parents were brutally murdered and was himself attacked and left for dead. After months in hospital recovering from multiple knife wounds (all three Fowlers were attacked in their beds while asleep), Elizabeth Russell brings him to River's Edge, and no one ever speaks of his trauma.

The second ward is Cynthia Faraday, who lost her parents to an accident while they were traveling. Despite this, she is well adjusted, a bit of a "spitfire" (which basically translates to rude, impulsive, but pretty enough to get away with it). You know what? Don't bother with Cynthia Faraday. She's mostly pointless. Everybody was in love with her, she didn't love anybody, she's the damsel in distress in the final boss battle. Other than that, no point to her.

There are two other boys, roughly the same age as Wyatt and Justin. There is a village boy, named Ben Willet, born to be a fisherman, but with aspirations to be a writer. He left the village to become a footman before the war. There is also a Mrs. Russell's driver named Harold Finley.

The plot begins with the disappearance of Elizabeth Russell in the summer of 1914. She was seen headed to the marshes, and never returned. Search parties failed to turn up any sign of her. The assumption was that she died due to depression caused by Wyatt and Justin going to WWI.

Justin Fowler and Harold Finley go missing in 1915, presumed deserters.

In 1919 (the book's present day), we get a shell game of identity swapping. "Wyatt Russell" turns up at Scotland Yard, and confesses to killing his cousin, Justin Fowler, in 1915. "Wyatt Russell" turns out to actually Harold Findlay? Can I keep these characters separate? No, because so far they are indistinguishable; just names.

So Ben Willett is the cancer riddled former footman who wrote a couple of books after the war. He confessed accused Wyatt of killing Justin in 1915. His body turns up shot in the head. Who did that? Why is he wearing Elizabeth Russell's locket around his neck? (Mostly in order to give Rutledge some clues to follow up, basically.) Did he engineer her disappearance in 1914?

Let's just skip to the resolution, rather than try to tease out all the clues and the red herrings. Everybody was killed by a madman. The anonymous child of that first disastrous Russell marriage? Grew up a resentful sociopath, convinced that he should have been the Russell heir. (Again--not clear he was even related, but whatever.) His life is literally devoted to destroying the Russell family. He becomes the rector at the local village church (????) where he hides in plain sight for the duration of the war I guess?

He killed Elizabeth Russell in 1914, tied her body to some rocks and sank her in the marshes. He also killed the Fowlers, failed to kill Justin as a lad, but managed to do it in 1915 when Justin was at River's Edge (along with Harold Finlay), recuperating from war wounds.

Finlay finds Justin's body, swaps clothes with the corpse, and dumps the body into the river to confuse identification. (He is apparently afraid that Cynthia will be blamed for the murder. No clear reason why.) He then fails to go back to the war in either identity, thus becoming a deserter, and sets up a new life for himself in Northern England or Scotland or somewhere.

Wyatt is in a nursing home somewhere, his mental stage swinging from clear to befuddled, mostly depending on what clues have to stay hidden. Rutledge plants a story that Wyatt had died, to lure the killer.

Who is the rector, going by the name of Morrison. But why does the rector want to kill all these people? To the extent there is any "reason" given, it's that he's SO resentful of Wyatt having the life he thinks he should have had, that he plans to kill everybody, leaving Wyatt for last so Wyatt is as miserable as possible.

Okay. This is not a theme or a trope or a leitmotif or an atmosphere or anything that has been running through the book. In fact, to the extent that there is a thematic emotion running through the book, it's that WWI sucked, and everybody's life is worse because of it. In fact, the sheer scale of the WWI carnage is such that it's hard to get worked up about a few hand crafted murders, really.

BUT--from a mystery perspective--this is a lot of carnage for not much payoff for Morrison, don't you think? I mean, these are all the people he has killed:

Mom and Pop Fowler
Justin Fowler (attempted)
Elizabeth Russell
Justin Fowler (successful)
Ben Willett
Wyatt Russell (he thinks, but not really)
Cynthia Faraday (attempted)
Ian Rutledge (attempted)

What did any of this do for him? He's still a rector in a tiny little village, where everybody hates him because he is an outsider, he doesn't get any of the Russell family money, nobody acknowledges him as family, he doesn't seem to get any satisfaction out of revenge. . .

There is no meat to this character at all. There is no reason for him to have been the murderer, except that in Mystery Writing 101, they tell you that the perpetrator has to be the most unlikely character. And he is, because this whole story of the "first marriage to a gold digger who dumped you when you were poor but then raised her child to be resentful of the eventual wealth" is only barely covered in this book. Because why tell that story when instead you can spend pages and pages talking about the emptiness of the marshes, and have people just looking out on the landscape.


The most irritating thing about this book is that there are scenes and secrets and dramatic occurrences that are basically shoved into the cracks of the plot like so much binding agent--everything is flattened into a sort of formless mess.

Let's talk about the single most dramatic thing in the book--the tragic story of the village.

This river village is overtly hostile to strangers--obnoxious to the point of caricature. Rutledge shows up in the tea room, and the operator would rather kick out the regulars and close up than let an outsider eat there. NOT THAT THIS IS SUSPICIOUS IN ANY WAY?

There is dialogue that amounts basically to this:
"Why are you so hostile to visitors"
"Because we are hiding a Deep Secret and we don't want people to hear about it!"

What is that Deep Secret? It's actually the most compelling story of the book--far more upsetting and emotionally scarring than the Mad Rector. Back a generation or so ago, river smuggling was a pretty big part of the economy. (Still is, although the presence of British soldiers nearby patrolling the coast has caused some fluctuation in the market.) A rich ship came up-river, got stuck on a sandbar, and the locals rowed out to investigate (loot) it. There was nobody aboard!

(Cue spooky music! OooooooooOOOOOOoooOOOooo!)

It was a plague ship, and there was a diary by the last survivor explaining what happened. One of the greedy villagers just tossed the diary overboard so as not to interfere with the looting. BUT THE PLAGUE CAME ALONG WITH THE LOOT! Some of the villagers became ill, and the then-rector started caring for them in the church, turning it into a makeshift hospital. The healthy villagers panicked, nailed the doors shut and burned down the church, killing everybody inside.

This is incendiary stuff. The toxic stew of emotions--the fear, the cruelty, the horror, hearing your family members dying inside the church, the long tail of guilt and misery. Why did the son of one of the arsonists went and named his pub after the plague boat? That is a story worth telling! The emotions! The visuals! The charred bodies and the destroyed church! The dancing flames and the rifts that grew up among the survivors!

But no.

This story does get told, but in a weird third-hand way that robs it off nearly all its power and majesty. Ian Rutledge reads about it--actually in Ben Willett's unpublished manuscript. But we don't get the manuscript either. We get the omniscient narrator reporting that Ian read about Ben's novelization of a scene he only heard about because it happened before he was born. I count that as something like fourth level hearsay.

Which is just so frustrating! There are the bones of a fascinating story here! The village history is still affecting the people who live there, a more traumatic experience than the entirety of WWI on the collective spirit of the village! That is a story worth telling!

Ben Willett might also have been interesting to get to know--a son of a river fisherman, who wanted something different out of life, and left to become a footman to an aristocrat, only to be mustered up and sent to France to fight WWI. He caught a glimpse of an even better life (than that of a footman!) and after the war, lived in Paris and wrote books! But his family never forgave him for getting above himself--so much so that he never came back after the war. That is a story worth telling!

Even the crazy story of Rector Morrison, maybe, if we saw the mix of the bright and the dark. I mean, the  character of the Rector is constantly being kind and helpful to Rutledge, and feeling hurt by being left out of the life of the village--well, they are keeping the secret of what they did to the LAST rector (more or less last one? The chronology is unclear here). How can this character be combined with the life-long-sociopathic-murderer that the plot requires? The book didn't do it, but that might be a story worth telling!


I should just quit farting around and write my own damn novels. I am so frustrated by the fact that a book like this gets published--actually, "Charles Todd" has written NINETEEN Ian Rutledge novels, and a further 7 with a different main character. WHAT THE HELL AM I WAITING FOR, thinking that I don't have anything to offer.

Is it too late to start NaNoWriMo this month?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

Honestly, I didn't like this book, but I am going to try to be fair.

I mean, McLain scored a big hit with The Paris Wife that I didn't much care for either because it failed to do what I thought was a necessary thing. In a book about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, it failed to convince me of Hemingway's genius, and it didn't entice me into reading an either.

In conjunction with this book though, perhaps I need to rethink McLaine's objectives. In some ways, she is trying to reclaim women who have been shortchanged by history. I can certainly get behind that. I mean, Hadley Hemingway's story has mostly been cast as her husband's story, or the story of the first wife where the later wives were much more glamorous. Or she was merely a minor attendant to the glamorous figures who also populated Hemingway's life in Paris. Poor Hadley, home with the baby while Ernest and the Fitzgeralds and the other glamorous expat were drinking it up in the bars of Montparnasse.

Beryl Markham might also be a similar project. While she was an early British settler of Kenya--moved there by her parents when she was 4 years old in the very early days of the 20th century, she was a remarkably modern woman--she married three times, trained horses, learned to fly, had affairs,  was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west (harder due to prevailing winds). Her story is somewhat of an adjunct to the story of Isak Dinesen and her lover Denys Finch-Hatton, told so cinematographically in the Oscar winning Out of Africa.

Markham also has a famous memoir called West with the Night, which even Ernest Hemingway praised for it's writing (and Ernest hated praising anyone who wasn't himself). So her story was told the way she wanted to tell it, but there are presumably gaps? And to give her credit, it seems that McLain did a fair amount of research into the minutae of Markham's past and life of the British in Kenya in the 1920s.

And yet.

Maybe this book needs to be read as a companion piece to Markham's own work (which I have not read). Maybe the tedious focus on her early teen years, the dreary digging into the names and habits of many of the horses she trained, while at the same time the near failure to cover her famous fltrans-Atlantic flight or anything after that--was because all that was well covered by Markham herself.

It's just--so boring. She was a wild and obstreperous child, allowed to run wild with the local population of Gikuyu after her mother returned to England when she was about 5. Her father was a horse man, training, breeding and racing thoroughbreds in African races. At some point, when she was about 12, he brought another woman to live as his wife, and Beryl was sent to school (which she hated) and some effort was made to civilize her. She married a few days before her 17th birthday to a local landowner when her father's business went bankrupt. She remained in Kenya; her father and semi-step-mother moved to Cape Town.

Not surprisingly, the marriage didn't work out very well, but it took some seven years or so for it to fail to the point of divorce. Meanwhile, Beryl had a few affairs, got certified as a horse trainer, met Isak Dinesen and Denys Finch-Hatton, fell in love with Finch-Hatton, had an abortion, felt torn between her desire for Finch-Hatton and her loyalty to Dinesen, remarried, had a child, lost the child to wealthy in-laws, returned to Kenya and learned to fly. Denys Finch-Hatton died in a plane crash. The epilogue is the last 50 miles of her trans-Atlantic flight, where she doesn't die in the crash landing.

There might be some beautiful writing about Africa of the 1920, but she is not a very interesting character to describe it to us. She loved the farm of her childhood, and so she actively resisted learning anything new that wasn't about being on the farm. She fell in love with Finch-Hatton who's most salient characteristic seems to be that he is beautiful. Her life had incident, but ti  is hard to shape it into any kind of narrative arc. Things happened, and then I kissed Denys/my husband divorced me/my reputation got damaged and it was the end of everything except then it wasn't.

McClain seems to want to rescue Markham's reputation from the scandalmongering of nearly a century ago. There was some whispering that she had an affair with Henry, the Duke of Gloucester (fourth in line to the throne, younger brother of both David who abdicated for Wallis Simpson, and George the father of the current Queen Elizabeth). So McLain shows us scenes where they are perfectly platonic and lets Beryl rail against gossip. She is known to have had an affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, even while Denys was involved with Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen) so McLain shows us Beryl wracked with guilt but also a better match than Dinesen was.

Beryl was linked a little bit with the "Happy Valley set"--the African version of Waugh's Bright Young Things, people with too much money and too little to do, who drank and drugged and swapped partners. Beryl is dragged along by a man, but refuses to take any of his cocaine and while she sleeps with him, won't change partners when everybody else does.

Do we know these things to be true? I don't know. Do I like her better for not having done the things she was "accused" of? Not necessarily. She comes off as priggish and reflexively anti-drug, reflexively unwilling to accept a different sex partner, not out of any particular aspect of her character. She's drawn as weirdly hedonistic and then moralistic, with no real explanation of why the lines are drawn where they were. Why is champagne acceptable, but cocaine is not? Why is it okay for her to sleep with some men but not others?

Perhaps it was the reader--I listened to the book and the distanced, mostly monotone reading leeched any nuance out of the character. Written in first person, a gifted reader would have shaded Beryl's character, made me root for her. Instead, I just got tired of her.

At several points, she discusses poetry with Finch-Hatton, or waxes lyrical about the effect of his death on her, and I just got irritated. Glittering vaguenesses, basically.

I mean, I think I respect McClain for the research she did, and it's not easy to write an book, but I wish there had been more of a point of view, more of a point at all. It was barely worth the time, and mostly I listened while doing other things anyway.

In short, I can not recommend it on it's own terms. Maybe if one has already read West with the Night, this would be a worthwhile addition. It did make me somewhat curious about reading that book, to be fair.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

 This book was all the rage a few years ago, and I did not read it then because I have a hard time reading non-fiction. One of my bookclubs picked it for the end of this month, so I bought it back in April. I finally finished it. I do have trouble with non-fiction.

This is not, however, the book I expected. I thought it was going to be much more rigorously scientific. Instead, it highlights the messiness that constitutes concepts like "progress," "science," and "understanding."

In brief, a young black woman was admitted to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore in 1951 with aggressive cervical cancer. So aggressive that she was sent home multiple times as "well" until she showed up and never left the hospital again. The autopsy showed that in a matter of weeks, the cancer had invaded her entire body.

At some point, a doctor took a sliver of the cervix--the book is not terribly clear about whether the sample was healthy or malignant (until the end, when Skloot clearly articulates that the sample was cancerous)--and used it as another attempt at his frustratingly unsuccessful quest to grow human cells in culture. These cells turned out to be vigorous and rapid growers, and a medical industry of tissue culture was launched.

Skloot has several points she is making here, and to her credit, she makes them clearly without beating the reader over the head with them. Instead, she leads us gently into the morass of medical ethics and challenges our assumptions about what "science" is.

Henrietta Lacks had the misfortune of having a terrible, aggressive, painful cancer that killed her at a time when the treatment for cancer were scarcely better than the disease. As a black woman in 1951 Baltimore, she was lucky to get any treatment at all--de facto segregation and poverty were enormous barriers to adequate care, even if the state of cancer treatment were any better than it was. Patients were not encouraged to question doctors generally, especially when black, poor, and female.

So Skloot sets out to do a number of things with this book. One is to recover who Henrietta Lacks was as a person--to reclaim the human being in her full humanity. This turns out to be very difficult, because the family has closed ranks and doesn't trust anyone, and even as Skloot gains their trust, not many people knew her. She had been dead for nearly 50 years when Skloot began asking about her, and many of the people were just too young to know anything about her.

She perseveres, and manages to sketch a woman whose life was severely circumscribed by poverty. Yet she was loved, she married, had five children, before dying at 31. Her death is particularly graphic and tragic.

Meanwhile, the "science" of cancer treatment and tissue research was far from rigorous. So the poverty of Henrietta Lack's life is weirdly mirrored by the doctor who first grew her cells. George Gey had theories, and ideas, and almost no funding and no support. He built his own lab equipment, often from salvaged junk, and basically invented cell growth medium from scratch. There is no reason to suspect that Henrietta Lacks's cells would do anything but die like all the rest of them.

These were the wild and wooly days of tissue research, when scientists traveled to labs carrying samples in their coat pockets and briefcases. These cells (labeled "HeLa") ended up being subjected to any number of strange manipulations as people attempted to figure out how to even test cells. Cells were sent into space, were subjected to nuclear testing, were treated with any number of possible toxins and vaccines, even as there was no system for keeping samples uncontaminated.

This lackadaisical approach to sterility is ridiculous to read about now, but is clearly part of the learning process of how to understand tissue research. It is how scientists learned--they made a lot of mistakes, but made an amazing number of discoveries using these new cells.

Meanwhile, Skloot interleaves these chapters with chapters about Henrietta Lacks's children and extended family. One daughter in particular, Deborah, keenly feels the loss of her mother and becomes emotionally volatile as she learns hthe fate of her mother. The Lackses remained poor and ill-educated after Henrietta's death, and it would be easy to mock their failure to understand what happened (and continues to happen) with Henrietta's cells.

Deborah in particular seems to feel that her mother exists inside those cells, and she asks people if they could use those cells to raise her mother from the dead, or to clones an exact replica. This might sound "crazy" but isn't that the same kind of question that scientists are asking in different contexts? What does it mean that these cells keep reproducing, a half century after Henrietta's death? Who owns that information? Does science owe Henrietta anything? Is there a financial obligation owed to her children--who are themselves so poor they can't usually afford health care?

In the end, the cells themselves seem to be immortal, is Henrietta also? Is it only fair that the woman herself be recognized? What does it mean to be immortal?

Perhaps the most meaty portion of the book is the Afterward, where Skloot lays out a number of ethical questions about tissue research. Matters of informed consent, monetization, genetic patents raise important questions that have not been definitively answered. Why shouldn't Henrietta's children get some payment for the use of her cells? An early court challenge to the use of human cells was decided against the donor, based on the concern that allowing donors to demand financial compensation might slow scientific research. The reality is that this decision simply moved the financial issues to the actual researchers. Genetic patents mean that science is held hostage by other scientists and biomedical companies--isn't this classist?

Fundamentally, it feels wrong that there should be so much money sloshing around the HeLa cells, and yet Henrietta Lacks's children and grandchildren should continue to be too poor to afford health care.

In the end, the book stands as an argument that not just the cells are "immortal" but the woman should be remembered as well, and should be immortal in her own right. TL:dr--the issues that underlie the book are clearly and cogently laid out in the Afterword, which might be the only really necessary reading. The issue is complicated, but is clearly articulated in it's complexity.

Skloot contrasts the questions scientists raise with the questions raised by Henrietta Lacks's family. They really are only different in detail--what does it MEAN to conduct experiments on human cells?

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Botticelli Secret, by Marina Fiorato

As travelogue and art detective mystery in the vein of Dan Brown, this book is both light-weight (in the sense of being a beach read--not too taxing) and a heavy-weight (in that it clocks in at over 500 pages.) It's well-written enough that it passes pleasantly, although it suffers from a Pot-Boiler Syndrome.

Pot-Boiler Syndrome is a term I just made up to describe a book that adheres to the conventions of a pot-boiler plot, with gruesome murders and near miss disasters to keep the stakes high for the protagonists, that has a central puzzle that leads the characters to Important Discoveries and fuels the plot development--but at the end, simply makes no sense.

Let's start with a plot synopsis, shall we?

The story is set in Florence, Italy, beginning in 1482. The narrator is a 16 year old prostitute named Luciana Ventra, who is beautiful enough to be asked to model for the figure of Flora in Sandro Botticelli's famous painting Primavera.
Flora is just right of center, in a dress covered with flowers.

For reasons, she is cheated of her fee, and ends up stealing a cartone, a miniature version of the larger work, small enough to roll up and hide in her bodice. She leaves the studio, and by the time she makes her way home, the bodies have started piling up.

First, she actually hears as the older prostitute with whom she shares a hovel is murdered. She flees to her wealthy patron (the one who recommended her for the painting) and he's murdered too. Improbably, she has met a handsome young novitiate from the monastery of Santa Croce that she believes might help her, so as she asks him for help, another monk is also murdered. So that's three deaths in only a few hours.

Luciana and her monk, Brother Guido, determine the deaths are related to the cartone, and their only chance at safety is to solve whatever secret is hidden in the painting.

What follows is a whirlwind tour of the major cities of Italy. First they flee to Pisa, where Brother Guido is the nephew of the current ruler. (The ruler is also murdered that night.) They discover the existence of a massive navy, built secretly, and they are captured and forced to go with the fleet to Naples. In Naples, they meet King Ferrante, who drags them to Rome, where they meet Pope Sixtus IV, holding court in the newly completed Sistine Chapel, and then back to Florence, where they attend the wedding of Lorenzo Pierfranco de' Medici, the nephew of the the Lorenzo "Il Magnifico" de' Medici, and the recipient of the Primavera painting.

Periodically, the two protagonists unroll the miniature, and try to solve the clues. The figures mostly stand for various Italian cities, the number of flowers in Flora's skirt has numeric significance of some sort, the names of the flowers falling from Chloris's mouth spell out a word. . .time and again, the details of the painting give some clue to a vast conspiracy of great importance. If only they can solve it in time!And if only Brother Guido weren't going to be a monk, then they could fall in love!

The eventual conspiracy turns out to be a plot to unify the peninsula into a single political entity: Italia. Who all is involved? Oh, just Rome, Florence, Naples, Milan, Pisa, Venice, and a place I had never heard of before (and can't look up because the book is back at the library).

Which raises several questions. First of all--if the leaders of all those city-states have agreed to unify, isn't that a done deal? I mean, if they all agree to terms, and a name, and a single currency, and a single leader (Lorenzo is not "Il Magnifico" for nothing, you know?), what is left to do? Why do they have a giant navy (seriously--thousands of ships?) and why is Leonardo da Vinci building his war machines underground in Milan? Who are they planning on attacking?

Late in the book, it seems that question has finally occurred to the author, and it turns out that it's--Genoa? Because The Seven (very inventive conspiracy name, isn't it?) somehow knew that one city wouldn't join in, so they were building up their armaments in order to attack Genoa.

How did they know this? According to the plot, the Doge of Genoa had no idea this was going on under his nose, and he had to be convinced in the short few hours before the navy attacked from the sea while the army came over the mountains. Which Luciana and Brother Guido managed to do (don't ask) just in time! And the conspiracy was defeated! Italy did not unify! Huzzah!

So, the next obvious question to ask is--was that a good thing? Fiorato devotes about two sentences to the glorification of "the independence of the city-states" and that's it. The conspiracy goes down in flames (literally)(Brother Guido puts a torch to the Navy and it all burns immediately) and the conspirators are forced to sign a treaty that is the kept secret so no one will ever know. (Why?) But what if Italy had unified in 1483, instead of 1870? What would have been lost? What might have been gained? That's 400 years of history where Italy might have been a major player--and it's not clear why it was so important to Luciana and Guido that this conspiracy be foiled. Rather it seems that "well, there's a puzzle here, and a bunch of murders, so it must be bad. Therefore we should stop it."

Raising yet another question--who was doing all this murdering? And why was he so bad at hitting his actual targets? The immediate answer is that there is a really tall, creepy looking leper, who follows Luciana around Italy, and even ends up nearly killing her in the finale in Genoa. He is apparently in the employ of Il Magnifico, but why does Il Magnifico need her to be murdered? And why isn't this leper assassin ever able to actually get to her. It's not like she's trained at avoiding attempts on her life. And part of his creepiness is that he's silent--the disease has literally destroyed his ability to speak. So who was talking to Luciana's roommate and then killed her?

I mean, sure, she had this miniature reproduction of the paining, but the painting itself was put on display at the big wedding? So it's not like they were really trying to hide the content.

Which raises yet another question. Why the hell would Lorenzo--or anybody--sit down with a painter and give him all the details of what is supposed to be a massive secret? And have him PUT ALL THE INFORMATION about it into it? Do you think that the King of Naples is just going to forget why all those ships are sailing into port? Is the Pope going to get distracted and forget the date of the attack? Why does Lorenzo need to have the flowers spell out the word "faro"--to remind him to go climb the lighthouse in Genoa in order to watch the naval battle?

It's not like Botticelli has any role in the conspiracy, other than painting the picture, and so why risk an information leak? I mean, not even that somebody might steal the miniature, but that Botticelli himself might let the information drop. And if you can figure out a plausible reason why all the information had to be encoded into a painting, why put it into a painting being given to Lorenzo Pierfrancisco? Shouldn't it go to the actual conspirators? Or somebody who has anything at all to do with the plan?

Which is ALSO the basis for yet ANOTHER question--how did they keep all this a secret? There had to be hundreds and hundreds of ship builders, and sailors, and suppliers for the navy alone. There was an army as well (from Milan, I think) which means again--armor and weapons and Leonardo's war machines required materials and builders and training. Literally thousands of people had to know at least some of what was going on. How is it that nobody ever let any of it slip? Only Luciana and Guido ever caught wind of it?

And if you are Seven clever conspirators, why do you all wear identifying rings on your thumbs? It's not like Lorenzo and Ferrante and Ludovico Sforza and the Pope wouldn't have recognized each other and needed the equivalent of a secret handshake to identify themselves to each other. In fact, the rings ONLY served (as far as we saw) to tip of Luciana and Guido who was and was not in on the plot.

When you try to reconstruct the plot itself (rather than how the protagonists learn of it), it just doesn't make any sense that the ringleaders would act that way.

Which is the big problem with the book, but there are little details that popped up that were just bad research on the author's part. In Florence, there are several moments where Luciana looks at the city and notices some of the main features. She comments on the filed marble patterns on the Duomo--the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore--marble that wasn't installed until after 1870, when Florence was briefly the capital of the newly unified Italy.

Il Magnifico hosts King Ferrante and his wife in the "Medici palace" which she describes as having a "toothed tower." Well, no, in 1482, the Medici were living in the Palazzo Medici, near the church of San Lorenzo. The building with the tower was the Palazzo dei Signoria--it wasn't inhabited by a de' Medici until Pope Clement (himself a de' Medici, son Giuliano who was murdered by the Pazzis) established Florence as a hereditary dukedom some 30-40 years later.

There is a awkward tendency to drop as many names and cameo appearances as possible. So while the characters are awaiting their audience with Pope Sixtus IV, in the Sistine Chapel, a helpful exposition character explains that Botticelli painted the wall frescos (along with some other Florentine artists and their workshops as well) and that "soon," Florence's own Michelangelo Buonarroti will come to paint the ceiling.

Except in 1482, Michelangelo was about 7 years old. . .so not only was it not going to be "soon," no one would have any idea of who he was or that he was going to be an artist.

Do you wonder what happened to the doomed passion of a Florentine whore for a Franciscan monk? Can a man and a woman save Italy from a massive conspiracy (that goes all the way to the top!) without falling in love?

Well, of course not! In fact, it turns out that Luciana is actually the daughter of the doge of Venice! She was sent away to escape some other plot (never really explained) and put in a convent in Florence to be kept safe. She ran way from the convent by accident, but since she was 12 by then, and still couldn't read, its not clear it was a very good place to be anyway. As the daughter of the doge (except "doge" is not a hereditary title, we are told, and is only held for a few years before being rotated, so basically she wasn't the doge's daughter when she was born?) she had been betrothed to the heir of the ruler of Pisa, who happened to be Brother Guido's cousin. A venal, gluttonous, homosexual cousin, whose weak chin was possibly the worst flaw of all.

BUT! He conveniently was at the mountain battle during the attack on Genoa (which was NOT set up at all as something he would do), took an arrow to the leg and conveniently died of gangrene. Off stage. So that on her wedding day, Luciana walks into the church and sees her Guido as the groom! (And nobody bother to tell her.) As for him, Guido had not yet taken his final vows, and when he found out the Pope was part of the conspiracy, he lost his faith in the church so now he gets to marry her! And they get to be rich and powerful and nobody ever tries to assassinate them and they all live happily ever after the end.

I mean, that happy ending kind of came out of nowhere and happened really really fast, but whatever. That's the kind of novel it was.

The most interesting parts are the art detecting--what CAN you see in that picture? And there were some interesting places they ended up during their adventure--Roman catacombs, the Pantheon, the major public buildings of Naples and Venice. . .b ut the thing that got them moving from place to place was ridiculous.

So maybe a B+ read if you aren't asking for internal consistency, believable characters, etc. If you know much about Italy, this will read like a seek=and =find came of locating all the errors of history.