The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

HBO premiered their film adaptation of the bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The film stars Renee Elise Goldberry as Henrietta Lacks, Oprah Winfrey as her daughter, Deborah Lacks and Rose Byrne as the author, Rebecca Skloot. The bestselling nonfiction book was published in February 2010. The hardcover edition was on the New York Times best seller list for 40 weeks when the paperback edition was released. The paperback edition was on the best seller list for 75 weeks. Libraries could not keep it on the shelf! So it comes to no surprise that HBO made a film about it.

If you have not read this book yet, I strongly encourage you to do so.  You don’t like nonfiction books? Well then you are in luck. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does not read like the typical nonfiction. This book is part biography, part medical science and a whole lot of drama!

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman living in Baltimore, Maryland in 1950. She had cervical cancer and was a patient at John Hopkins University. Her cells were taken and cultured without her knowledge and consent.  Her cells grew rapidly but Henrietta died in 1951. To this day, scientists use the cells taken from Henrietta Lacks for medical research. The cells are known around the world as HeLa cells. Rebecca Skloot, the author of the book, was curious about the woman behind the famous cells. She contacted the family about telling her story. Understandably, the family was hesitant to talk about her. The book and the HBO film cover Rebecca Skloot’s and Deborah’s interactions as they try to discover the story of Henrietta and what John Hopkins University Hospital did to her.

 

 

Big Little Lies TV Series

Big Little Lies is an HBO miniseries based off of the book of the same name by the author Liane Moriatry.  You can read my colleague Ann’s book review here.

Reese Witherspoon stars as Madeline Martha Mackenzie. Madeline is middle-aged mother of three. Her oldest daughter’s father, Nathan, left the family when Abigail was a small child. Madeline is very angry at her ex-husband, Nathan, since he has recently moved back to town with his new wife and daughter, Bonnie and Skye. Nathan has been very involved in his daughter Skye’s life which hurts Madeline since he left her alone to raise their daughter Abigail. Madeline has remarried and has two children with her husband Ed (Adam Scott).

Madeline is taking her daughter Chloe to Kindergarten roundup and has some trouble. Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) stops to help. The two women find out they are going to the same place since Jane is taking her son Ziggy to school. Jane is a single mom and new to town. Madeline decides to take Jane under her wing. She remembers what it is like to be a single mother and to be judged by the other moms. When they arrive at school, we are introduced to Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and her twin sons. Celeste appears to have an ideal life. Her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) is handsome and wealthy and she has two adorable boys. But we see glimpses of their home life and see that Perry abuses Celeste.

At the end of the Kindergarten roundup, one of the girls is hurt. She has bruises on her neck. The teacher asks her to identify the person that hurt her. She points her finger at Ziggy. Jane stands up for her son to the rest of the parents and Madeline stands by her side. A battle line has been drawn between the parents before school has even started.

Throughout the episode and the series, we see different members of town being interrogated at the police station. Most of them mention Madeline and Celeste and the women at school. The viewer is unsure of what has happened. From the brief instances of conversation, the viewer can guess that someone has died and it might be a murder. Who died is not revealed. So throughout the series, the viewer is left wondering which character died and who the murderer might be. The series has seven episodes. A delicious drama and tantalizing mystery leaves the viewer guessing and wanting more.

The Hamilton Affair by Elizabeth Cobbs

The Hamilton Affair tells the tale of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler. The book begins with young Alexander living in Christiansted on the island of St. Croix (one of the U.S. Virgin Islands). Hamilton and his mother run a small store. They own a slave Ajax who is the same age as Alexander. The boys have been friends growing up but now his mother is coaching Alexander on how to be a proper gentleman. This includes giving orders to Ajax instead of being his friend. Alexander works very hard on his manners and his deportment. If he looks and acts like a gentleman, perhaps the people of Christiansted will forget that he was born out of wedlock. After his mother dies, Alexander Hamilton moves to New York and goes to school to college. The Revolutionary War begins and the reader finds young Alexander Hamilton a captain for the American Army. Captain Hamilton is close to General George Washington and works with him regularly. On one of his errands, he stops at General Schuyler’s house. This is when he first meets the General’s daughter, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth cannot stop thinking of the young captain. She is impressed with the way that he carries himself. Also, her father, General Schulyer, had recently lost command of his army to General Horatio. Hamilton does not agree with the situation; neither does Elizabeth. While Elizabeth is visiting relatives, she finds herself at a dance with Captain Hamilton. The two begin a courtship and they are married. The author Elizabeth Cobbs gives us Alexander and Elizabeth’s viewpoints throughout the book. Usually, the chapters alternate their respective stories which I enjoyed. It was nice to see how each one viewed an incident or a historical figure. Of course, this book is historical fiction, so the author took some liberties with parts of the story.

Alexander Hamilton was an interesting person. He was born an illegitimate child but desperately tried to prove himself a gentleman. As a child, his mother owned slaves, yet Hamilton did not believe in slavery. One of his closet friends was a man named Ajax Manly whom he met during the Revolutionary War. They were friends until Alexander’s death and Ajax and Elizabeth remained friends. Ajax falls in love with a slave woman and Hamilton helps the woman gain her freedom. George Washington liked Hamilton a great deal and promoted him to General during the Whiskey Rebellion. But Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe did not like Hamilton. Some people believed that Hamilton’s insistence on a centralized government was a sign that he was a monarchist. Jefferson especially took issue with Hamilton’s views on central government and a federal bank. The two would be rivals until Hamilton’s death in 1804 at the hand of Aaron Burr.

I believe that most Americans take for granted all of the work that the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) did to create this nation. We forget about how long the war was or long it took to ratify the Constitution. The date July 4, 1776 is engraved in our minds but we forget that other events transpired in order to form our government. Reading a book like The Hamilton Affair is a reminder of the hard work, the disagreements, the stress and the worry that the Founders faced.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

 

The second book by the author of the bestselling mystery The Girl on a Train will not disappoint!

Into the Water takes place in a rural Beckford, England. A river flows throughout the town; with so many twists and turns that one character comments that, “everywhere you turn, you run into the river”. But there is a particular place in the river that is famous in the town. The Drowning Pool. There is no mystery as to why it is called the Drowning Pool. The first page of the book introduces the reader to a young woman that is being tied up and forced into the water. We quickly learn about the latest victim of the Drowning Pool, Nel Abbott. Nel had been researching the former victims of the Drowning Pool for a book. It turns out that women have been found submerged in the river for hundreds of years. While it looks like a suicide some people wonder if there was foul play. Nel Abbot had made enemies.

Nel’s sister Jules comes to Beckford to take charge of her niece, Lena. Lena has not only lost her mother, but a few months earlier, she lost her best friend to the Drowning Pool. People are unsure why Katie Wittaker decided to commit suicide. Katie’s mother, Louise is having a terrible time coming to terms with her daughter’s death. Louise’s son, Josh, notes that the night that Nel Abbott went into the water, Louise was gone for most of the night. When detective Erin Morgan, who is new to town, asks people about Nel Abbot, it seems that no one really cares that she died. Except of course, her family, Jules and Lena. To complicate matters, Jules has been estranged from her sister for quite some time. So Jules and Lena do not know each other at all. Throughout the book, we learn more about Nel Abbott and Katie Wittaker and the people in their lives. The more that we learn, it becomes harder to trust anyone in Beckford.

If you listen to audiobooks, you will enjoy this one. Into the Water is read by five voice actors and they do a wonderful job. Read by Laura Aikman, Sophi Aldred, Rachel Bavidge, Imogen Church and Daniel Weyman.

 

 

Fantastic Fiction

Most people get stuck in a reading rut. They have read all of the books by their favorite author and now they don’t know what to read next. Sometimes a friend recommends a good book to you and that keeps you from being stuck in a rut too long. But sometimes you want a book now and you have no one to ask. May I suggest a website. A wonderful website that thousands of people love. It is called Fantastic Fiction.

Fantastic Fiction began in 1999 as a hobby for Dave Wands of the UK. The website grew and in 2004, Wands resigned from his job and formed the website company. Now there is a small team of family and friends that works hard to keep the information accurate and current. There are not enough words to express my gratitude to these people!

Fantastic Fiction is a website that keeps track of books and authors. If you are wondering if your favorite author will be publishing a book soon, you can find that information on the website. If you do not know the order of the books in a series, Fantastic Fiction can help you with that. I always turn to this website first when I am looking for a book in a series, even over an author’s webpage. Fantastic Fiction always has the series listed and publication dates. It is very useful when you are looking up an author that writes books in different series (and there are a lot of authors that do!).

While having a website that lists books and authors is pretty great, the best features of Fantastic Fiction have not been mentioned yet. There are other features of Fantastic Fiction will help you find other books to read. First, you will see a section of books that an author recommends. For example, if you were on James Patterson’s webpage, you will see that he recommended Crimson Lake by Candice Fox. So if you enjoy reading James Patterson’s books, you might like to read a book by Candice Lake. Also, some of the books that he recommended are part of a series. So you may discover a new author and  a new series to love. Another feature on each author’s webpage is a section that lists other authors that are similar to the author that you are looking at. On James Patterson’s page, other authors that are listed include David Baldacci, Lee Child and Michael Connelly. This section is a great tool for finding a new author that you may like based on your reading preferences. And if you are still stuck, you can check out the top authors and popular books pages.

I hope that you check out Fantastic Fiction. It has a lot of useful information. And the author bios can be quite interesting and the author pictures can be amusing! Fantastic Fiction has a lot to offer so stop by and visit their page.

 

The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

Two women. One rental house in London. One eccentric landlord.

One Folgate Street in London is an unusual home. It was built by an award winning architect, Edward Monkford. The home has an open floor plan and there are no doors. The staircase is built in to the wall and there is no railing to hold on to. The decor is austere. While the home has clean lines and is in beautiful in its own way, it is not cozy. There are no rugs, pillows or photographs. But it does have state of the art technology. And this house is a rental. In fact, it is affordable. However, in order to rent this house, a person has to fill out a very lengthy application including a personality test. Very few applicants are asked to come in for an interview. And if you do live at One Folgate Street, you have to follow a large list of strict rules.

Emma is the girl before. Recently, there was a break in at her apartment while she was home. Now she does not feel safe and she wants to find a new apartment. Unfortunately, she cannot afford a lot of places that are available and she does not like the places that she can afford. Emma’s realtor shows her One Folgate Street and cautions her about the strict guidelines for living in this home. Emma is determined to make it work. She likes the security system on the home. She feels safe at One Folgate Street.

Jane is the girl that lives at One Folgate Street now. She just lost a baby girl and she is looking for a change. Like Emma, Jane cannot afford a lot of the apartments that are available. Jane finds the house at One Folgate Street calming. Jane is also determined to live there and goes through the long application answering personal questions about herself. After Jane moves in, she finds a sleeping bag in the attic. Who lived in this house before? Why were they sleeping in the attic? Jane starts investigating the previous occupant, Emma. And she finds out that Edward Monkford had a wife and child. They both died. Is there something sinister about her charming landlord?

The Girl Before is a thrilling mystery full of surprises. I could not put it down. Look for this book to be made into a motion picture with Ron Howard directing.

 

 

Joyland by Stephen King

Recently, I went on a road trip and I wanted to listen to an audiobook during the long drive. My travelling companion brought Stephen King’s Joyland. I was not thrilled. I have not read a Stephen King book for quite awhile and I imagined that I was going to listen to another book about some weird creepy monsters. As you might guess, books about monsters are not the books that I typically read anymore. So, as I put the CD in the car, I told myself to give it a chance. Maybe I would enjoy this book.

I’m glad that I gave it a chance.

Joyland is not a book about weird creepy monsters. Our narrator, Devin Jones, tells us the story of the summer when he was 21 years old. The year was 1973. Devin was a college student at the University of New Hampshire. While he was looking through the help wanted section, he saw a listing for an amusement park in North Carolina. The park was called Joyland. Devin’s girlfriend encourages him to apply for the job, telling him that it will be an adventure. So Devin takes the bus down to Joyland to apply for the job. One carny, Lane Hardy, has worked at Joyland for years. He gives Devin pointers on where to eat and tells him about a boardinghouse he can live at during the summer. Lane lets Devin ride the Carolina Spin (the Ferris Wheel). Devin enjoys the view of the beach and the ocean. He knows that he wants to work at Joyland. When Devin goes to the boardinghouse, his new landlady tells him about a ghost story at the amusement park. A few years earlier, a young woman named Linda Gray was murdered in the Funhouse of Fear. Some people claim that they saw her ghost while they were on the ride.

When Devin comes back to North Carolina for the summer, he meets the other boarders at the house. Tom and Erin are also college students working at Joyland for the summer. The trio quickly become friends and they work on the same team at the park. Devin’s girlfriend breaks up with him and he is heartbroken. Devin drops a lot of weight and the staff at the park become concerned about him. Lane Hardy tells Devin that he needs to eat. Devin finds that Lane is a helpful guy and the two have many positive interactions. Lane may be carny and Devin a greenie, but it is clear that Lane likes the kid.

One day, Devin, Erin and Tom have the day off. They decide to go to Joyland to check out the Funhouse of Fear and see if they spot the ghost of Linda Gray. Devin and Erin have a good time on the ride but Tom does not. He reveals that he saw Linda Gray and refuses to speak about it. Devin asks Erin to research Linda Gray when she goes back to college. Devin decides to stay at Joyland and mend his broken heart. Erin comes back to visit Devin in October. She reveals that there were other murders at other amusement parks. She finds pictures of Linda Gray and her killer at Joyland. Something about the pictures bothers Devin but he cannot figure out what is troubling him.

After the amusement park is closed for the summer, Devin meets a woman and her son. They live in a large house on the beach. At first, the woman, Annie, is distant even though Mike tries to engage Devin. One day, Annie and Mike are struggling to fly a kite. Devin offers to help and is able to get the kite in the air. Mike is overjoyed and Annie warms up to Devin. They develop a friendship. Devin quickly figures out that Mike has some psychic abilities when Mike is able to answer Devin’s unspoken questions. The fortune teller at Joyland had told Devin that he would meet a kid with the Sight. This ability proves to be useful to Devin.

Joyland was not the typical Stephen King horror story. If you were a fan of Stephen King’s novella, “The Body” in the book Different Seasons, you will like Joyland. If you do not remember the story, “The Body”, then you might remember the movie that it was based on, Stand By Me. Joyland is full of mystery and suspense and the tone is nostalgic. The audiobook narrator, Michael Kelly, has a great voice to listen. I highly recommend listening to this one.

Tippi: a Memoir by Tippi Hedren

 

If you do not know the name Tippi, you probably know her face. Tippi Hedren starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s,The Birds, playing the character Melanie Daniels. The role was Hedren’s film debut in 1963. Previously, she had modeled and starred in commercials. It was a television commercial that caught the eye of the famous director. Hitchcock told his staff to find the girl in the advertisement and they did what they were told. Tippi received a phone call letting her know that, “a famous director was interested in her”. No one would tell her who the famous director was but she was thrilled to find out that it was Alfred Hitchcock. Tippi signed a contract with him and starred in two of his films: The Birds and Marnie.

You may have heard that Tippi Hedren has said that Hitchcock sexually harassed her. And that he sexually assaulted her. While Tippi goes into some detail about the harassment, she will not reveal the full story of the assault. So if that is your only interest in the book, then you will be disappointed. There is a movie about Tippi and Hitchcock working together and there are scenes where Hitchcock is being inappropriate. The Girl (which was Hitchcock’s nickname for Tippi) was a HBO movie that is now on DVD. And if you don’t subscribe to HBO, you are in luck. You can check it out from the library. I watched the movie before I read the book ( I know, I know. Bad librarian!) and it made me interested to learn more about Tippi Hedren. Hence, that is why I read the book and why I am now writing this blog.

So even though Tippi went through a difficult time being an actress for Alfred Hitchcock, she continued to work in other films. But the big story in Tippi is that she ended up being the caretaker of several large cats. I do not want to tell the entire story, or how Tippi and her husband, Noel Marshall, thought it would be a great idea to have their own pride of lions to make a film about. The stories about her adventures in raising lion cubs are quite funny (and sometimes scary). Tippi also had tigers, cheetahs and leopards. There was also a Liger. Eventually they were forced to move out of Hollywood so they could live somewhere large enough to take care of all the big cats. They even acquired an elephant. Now the place is called Shambala. You can learn more about the place and the ROAR foundation at Shambala. Or read the book, Tippi: a Memoir.

The Birds
Marnie
The Girl

 

 

 

Greetings From Utopia Park by Claire Hoffman

I have always been curious about Fairfield, Iowa. I remember my parents would listen to the local AM radio station in Southeast Iowa and I would hear the Maharishi school mentioned.  It seemed that Fairfield and the Maharishi campus were always shrouded in mystery. No one seemed to know a lot about what was going on in Fairfield and there were whispers that it was a cult. When I was in high school, the Maharishi tennis team was very good. Members of my school’s tennis team told us about playing in Fairfield against the Maharishi school and that it just seemed “weird”.

In Greetings from Utopia Park, Claire Hoffman tells the story of her and her family moving to Fairfield, Iowa when she was in Kindergarten. The family had just moved to Iowa after her parents split up due to her father’s alcohol problem.  Her mother was looking for a fresh start and had already been involved in the Transcendent Meditation movement. Fairfield, Iowa was now the place to be if you were a follower of Maharishi. Claire and her older brother, Stacey, already meditated and chanted their Word of Wisdom. They were looking forward to meeting other kids that were like themselves. Unfortunately, their mother did not have the tuition money that was required to be a student at the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment.  So Claire and Stacey had to go to the local Fairfield Elementary School. Claire was warned by a classmate not to let kids know that she was a ‘ru (short for guru). Children at the public school did not welcome kids that were part of the TM movement. (Transcendent Movement).

Soon, an anonymous benefactor paid for the school tuition so Claire and Stacey could attend the Maharishi School. Life was better for Claire. She was surrounded by children that were a lot like herself. Children that meditated and that were vegetarians. The Transcendent Movement felt very important to her and she felt like a part of something big. Hoffman tells stories of what is was like to go to school; what her classes entailed, lunches at the cafeteria and meditations. There was even a special math course.

But as the years passed, life in Utopia Park became more and more expensive. Courses on learning how to “fly” while meditating became more expensive. Tuition at the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment more than doubled. Stacey was pulled out of school and went to the public high school. Later, Claire joined him. The “townie” kids were not always kind. Claire had mixed feelings about Maharishi, which is quite understandable. If you read the book, you will understand why.

 

Conversations with Lincoln

I listen to a lot of audiobooks in the car. Sometimes when I am looking for a new audiobook to listen to, I look for something that is short. If you have ever listened to a 20 disc audiobook, you understand. As much as I love audiobooks, sometimes I need something short and  something different; something to cleanse my palate (or my ears).

While I was browsing the shelves, I noticed, Conversations with Lincoln and I am happy that I checked it out. One nice feature of this audiobook is listed in the title. They are stories. I did not have to pay a lot of attention to the book in order to keep up with the story because the story would end and another story would start! I also liked that this was nonfiction so I was learning something while I drove my car.

The conversations that people had with Abraham Lincoln took place while he lived in New Salem, Illinois, Springfield, Illinois and while he was President in Washington, D.C.  Over and over again people talk about how kind Lincoln was to people. He was especially fond of children. One tale speaks of his time in Illinois and how he allowed the neighborhood boys to go fishing with him. They all had such a good time that no boy would dare miss another fishing trip. Many of the stories that occurred while Lincoln was President involved women asking for their fathers, husbands and sons to be released from duty from the Army or transferred somewhere else. One such woman lost her husband in the war and asked President Lincoln if one of her son’s could be released from duty so that he could come home and take care of her and her farm. Another woman asked for her father’s life after he was sentenced to be executed. President Lincoln had a difficult time executing young boys that deserted from the Army. Many of them were too young to serve in the first place. Of course the Army disapproved of his leniency and claimed that he undermined their authority.

While I was listening to this audiobook, I kept marveling over the fact that people were actually allowed to have conversations with the President of the United States. If you were willing to wait a few hours, it was possible that President Lincoln would invite you into his office to tell him your trouble. As you were waiting, you could be sitting next to a U.S. Senator or an Army General who were also waiting their turn. They would have had preference over you, but an ordinary person had the chance to speak to the President. The theme of this book is how kind Abraham Lincoln was. He genuinely cared about people’s troubles and he did his best to fix the problem. If he was unable to fix the problem himself, then he would refer the person to someone who could do something about it, with a note bearing his signature. He had a soft spot for children and always made a point to speak to them while they were in his presence. And he tried to do his best to reunite women with the men in their lives. Clearly, he hated that the war was destroying families. While listening to this book, it was hard to not wish an audience with Abraham Lincoln in order to speak with this intelligent and overly kind man.