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?