Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

From New Yorker staff writer David Grann, #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Lost City of Z, a twisting, haunting true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly riveting, but also emotionally devastating.

It seems we’ll never run out of shameful chapters from America’s past. In Killers of the Flower Moon, writer David Grann explores the “Reign of Terror” waged against the Osage tribe in Oklahoma during the 1920s. The murder epidemic itself is horrifying, and so too are the years that came before in Osage history. For starters, when the Osage were forced off of their previously held land, they ended up settling in a rocky area of Oklahoma clearly unsuited for farming, feeling that it would be a stable home since the land was worthless and wouldn’t be taken over by white men. The irony, of course, is that under the land were undiscovered oil deposits that would soon turn the Osage into millionaires.

The members of the Osage tribe were allotted “headrights” — basically, a share of the oil and mineral ownership — and these headrights could not be sold, only passed on through family members. At the same time, the government considered the Native Americans incapable of managing their own affairs, and adult Osage who were deemed incompetent (and most were) were required to have white guardians to manage their money.

As we see in Killers of the Flower Moon, there was a lot to be gained by finding ways to either manipulate the Osage through shady business dealings and corrupt guardianships, or more directly, by murder. Mollie Burkhart is the initial focus of the book, and we see as her entire family is wiped out, one at a time, through violent murder or insidious poisonings. Between the crimes themselves and the bungling and corruption of the investigation, Mollie and her tribe lived in terror and with a very real threat hanging over their heads.

Part I of the book explores the crimes, and Part II traces the involvement of the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI), as well as the early stages of the Bureau’s investigative approach and its evolution under J. Edgar Hoover. We see the lawmen tasked with investigating the murders, and follow them all the way through to the eventual arrests and convictions of the men involved. In Part III, the author describes his research and what he uncovered in historical archives, through which he finally unearthed evidence that helped some descendants of the victims find a sense of resolution.

The subject matter of Killers of the Flower Moon is fascinating and very, very disturbing. However, I did find myself losing interest at various points, especially in Part II, as the sections about the Bureau and its processes just didn’t grab me as much as the parts focusing on the Osage tribe members and their experiences. I also wished that I’d felt a more personal connection to some of the people involved. While we learn what happened to Mollie and her family, Mollie herself often seems unknowable. Granted, this is history, not a dramatization, but I still wish there was some way to get more of a glimpse beneath the individuals’ surfaces.

I recognize too that my lack of interest or focus in certain parts of the story may say more about me as a reader than about the actual book itself. I can be easily distracted when reading non-fiction, and I might not have always been in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate what I was reading.

That said, I do feel that Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful and compelling book. It’s astonishing to me that the history of the Osage in Oklahoma isn’t better known, and I’m sure that this book will change that. (I understand that a film version is planned, and will be a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio venture — something to look forward to!)

Even people (like me) who tend not to read a lot of non-fiction will find themselves absorbed by the story once they pick up Killers of the Flower Moon. Highly recommended.

For more on the movie, go here.
To read the New York Times review of the book, go here.

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The details:

Title: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Author: David Grann
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: April 18, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/true crime
Source: Library

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Take A Peek (audio) Book Review: Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Mary Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker‘s copy department, maintaining its celebrated high standards. Now she brings her vast experience, good cheer, and finely sharpened pencils to help the rest of us in a boisterous language book as full of life as it is of practical advice.

Between You & Me features Norris’s laugh-out-loud descriptions of some of the most common and vexing problems in spelling, punctuation, and usage—comma faults, danglers, “who” vs. “whom,” “that” vs. “which,” compound words, gender-neutral language—and her clear explanations of how to handle them. Down-to-earth and always open-minded, she draws on examples from Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and the Lord’s Prayer, as well as from The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace, and Gillian Flynn. She takes us to see a copy of Noah Webster’s groundbreaking Blue-Back Speller, on a quest to find out who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick, on a pilgrimage to the world’s only pencil-sharpener museum, and inside the hallowed halls of The New Yorker and her work with such celebrated writers as Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders.

Readers—and writers—will find in Norris neither a scold nor a softie but a wise and witty new friend in love with language and alive to the glories of its use in America, even in the age of autocorrect and spell-check. As Norris writes, “The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can’t let it push you around.”

 

My Thoughts:

What fun! Mary Norris’s excellent memoir/grammar book is funny, clever, informative, and endlessly entertaining. She recounts her early days at The New Yorker, learning the rules of copy editing one pencil mark at a time. She has chapters dedicated to the finer nuances of punctuation, a fascinating chapter on vulgarity and swear words in print, and an homage to her obsession with pencils.

I listened to the audiobook, which has pros and cons. On the pro side, Mary Norris herself is the narrator. She has a distinctive voice, very sharp and clear, and you can sense the humor underlying every sentence she utters. On the con side, some of the punctuation chapters were especially difficult to follow, and I think I would have enjoyed them more if I’d at least had a print copy on hand for reference.

Between You & Me is perfect for word geeks and bibliophiles everywhere. I think I need to grab a hard copy to keep on hand for the next time I need to clarify some commas or hyphens, or finally settle on whether to use “which” or “that”.

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The details:

Title: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
Author: Mary Norris
Publisher: W. W. Norton Company
Publication date: August 4, 2016
Print length: 240 pages
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 10 minutes
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Audible

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Reading Reaction: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

I did it! I finally finished reading the mammoth biography, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

It’s no secret by now that this 800+ page history book is the inspiration for the Broadway musical Hamilton. And — oh yeah — let me just mention right here that I have tickets to the show FOR THIS WEEKEND!

Once I actually got the tickets, I became firm in my resolution to read the book. I was not giving away my shot to learn more about the ten-dollar founding father without a father. And so, in early April, I dug in. First, I started with the audiobook — a 36 hour audiobook! — figuring I’d make slow but steady progress. And I did — but took a break to listen to a couple of other things, and then couldn’t get back into the flow.

Next, I turned to the Kindle edition, with a vague plan to treat it as a serial read — maybe I’d devote 10 – 15 minutes a day, and sooner or later I’d get through the book.

I had to finish it.

After all, there were a million things I hadn’t known.

But it turns out, I just couldn’t wait.

Pretty soon, I was reading like I was running out of time.

(Sorry. I’ll stop. Soon.)

But seriously, I’m glad I stuck with it. Alexander Hamilton is a brilliant, LONG, minutely detailed, and exhausting book — but emphasis on the brilliant.

Sadly, it also made me realize that while I thought I’d gotten a pretty decent education when it came to US history, apparently my teachers skipped quite a bit. I was fairly good on the Revolutionary War and Civil War, but this book showed me how little I knew about the early, post-war years of our country, the political factions and their intense rivalries and scorching hatreds, and the incredible animosity between Hamilton and, well, so many of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I actually had only the slightest clue about the process of the creation of the Constitution and Hamilton’s role in it. The book is eye-opening in the extreme — and while said eyes did actually glaze over a bit, especially during the chapters on Hamilton’s economic plans, national debt, banking, etc — I learned a tremendous amount that was new to me and/or gave me new perspective on political discord and the origins of controversies that linger to this day.

The writing in Alexander Hamilton is quite wonderful and never dull, and I loved how, thanks to Hamilton’s compulsion toward the written word, so much of his own written record is incorporated into the book. It’s enlightening as well to see writings of George Washington and other historical figures, and particularly moving to see the written record of the love and affection between Hamilton and Eliza.

The behind the scenes look at Hamilton’s time on Washington’s staff during during the war, the maneuvering and struggling to get the Constitution ratified, the deeply bloodthirsty political battles — all are written so vividly, and with such great use of language from the historical record of correspondence, newspaper articles, and personal memoirs — that I often felt like I was in the room where it happened.

So how is it that an 800-page history book can bring a woman of the 21st century to tears?

Adieu, best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.

Easy. By the time the duel with Aaron Burr rolled around, I was ready to put the book in the freezer. (Yes, that’s a Joey Tribbiani reference. Always appropriate.) I didn’t want it to happen. Make it stop! It feels especially silly getting emotional over events that (a) are carved in stone and actually happened and (b) happened over 200 years ago. Kind of similar to how I felt reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel — I wanted to somehow have the story work out differently so that Anne Boleyn could keep her head, but damn history! It happens anyway, despite my feels.

There are places where Hamilton’s writing and Chernow’s analysis are startlingly relevant. I’ll just leave a few bits here:

After a protracted inquiry into Hamilton’s conduct as Treasury Secretary which resulted in a finding that all charges were baseless:

Nevertheless, it frustrated him that after this exhaustive investigation his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct. He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics and mused wearily that “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” If a charge was made often enough, people assumed in the end “that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.”

Hmmm. (But her emails…)

Or hey, how about how a President selects key advisers?

Washington had always shown great care and humility in soliciting the views of his cabinet. Adams, in contrast, often disregarded his cabinet and enlisted friends and family, especially Abigail, as trusted advisers.

Lest we think political discourse was more genteel and polite back in ye olden days…

On October 1, he sent a follow-up note to Adams, calling the allegations against him “a base, wicked, and cruel calumny, destitute even of a plausible pretext to excuse the folly or mask the depravity which must have dictated it.”

And then there’s this commentary on a document about Adams published by Hamilton:

“And, if true, surely it must be admitted that Mr. Adams is not fit to be president and his unfitness should be made known to the electors and the public. I conceive it a species of treason to conceal from the public his incapacity.”

I ended up highlighting a LOT as I was reading — either wonderfully phrased words from Hamilton himself or interesting bits about the customs of the day or insightful hints of how Hamilton and his friends, family, and foes thought, as gleaned from their journals and letters.

I may not be all that young, scrappy, or hungry, but I did end up devouring this book once I got into its rhythms. Again, it’s weird to say that a book about history, some of it quite well-known, can be suspenseful, yet that’s how it felt. The author manages to take the events and people of the historical record and make them feel alive, and writes with a flair for capturing the intensity and drama of Hamilton’s life, as well as the emotions and experiences of Eliza, Angelica (the Schuyler sisters!), and Hamilton’s closest friends and harshest critics and enemies.

Okay, and I did come away from the book despising Aaron Burr (the damn fool who shot him), because it seems clear that Hamilton went to the duel determined not to shoot Burr, but Burr went there planning to shoot to kill, if he could.

Beyond the dramatic ending, I gained a huge amount of knowledge about Alexander Hamilton, the man who grew up impoverished and of questionable birth, who grew into one of our nation’s finest thinkers and leaders. What an amazing reading experience!

Yes, just about everyone has fallen in love with the Hamilton musical. (I admit, I was very late to the party myself, but have been doing my best to catch up!) If you’re someone who mainly knows the story of Hamilton courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, I encourage you to give this book a shot. It’s worth the effort, and gives a whole new meaning to all those amazing lyrics that we all quote at random times. (Right? Not just me? Thanks.)

It’ll probably be a while before I venture back to the non-fiction shelf to pick up a history book or political biography… but Alexander Hamilton has proved to me once again that reading non-fiction can be just as much of a thrill as reading a great novel, when done well and in the hands of a gifted writer.

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Shelf Control #74: Riding Rockets

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: Riding Rockets
Author: Mike Mullane
Published: 2006
Length: 382 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On February 1, 1978, the first group of space shuttle astronauts, twenty-nine men and six women, were introduced to the world. Among them would be history makers, including the first American woman and the first African American in space. This assembly of astronauts would carry NASA through the most tumultuous years of the space shuttle program. Four would die on Challenger.

USAF Colonel Mike Mullane was a member of this astronaut class, and Riding Rockets is his story — told with a candor never before seen in an astronaut’s memoir. Mullane strips the heroic veneer from the astronaut corps and paints them as they are — human. His tales of arrested development among military flyboys working with feminist pioneers and post-doc scientists are sometimes bawdy, often hilarious, and always entertaining.

Mullane vividly portrays every aspect of the astronaut experience — from telling a female technician which urine-collection condom size is a fit; to walking along a Florida beach in a last, tearful goodbye with a spouse; to a wild, intoxicating, terrifying ride into space; to hearing “Taps” played over a friend’s grave. Mullane is brutally honest in his criticism of a NASA leadership whose bungling would precipitate the Challenger disaster.

Riding Rockets is a story of life in all its fateful uncertainty, of the impact of a family tragedy on a nine-year-old boy, of the revelatory effect of a machine called Sputnik, and of the life-steering powers of lust, love, and marriage. It is a story of the human experience that will resonate long after the call of “Wheel stop.”

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

2010 or thereabouts.

Why I want to read it:

I have a soft spot for a good space exploration story! I read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars when it came out, and thought it was hilarious — and I’m pretty sure I either read or heard her recommending this book. Memoirs by people involved in NASA and the space race and the science of space exploration are just so fascinating to me. I really do need to make a point of reading this one!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Shelf Control #57: Firehouse

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

firehouseTitle: Firehouse
Author: David Halberstam
Published: 2003
Length: 208 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“In the firehouse, the men not only live and eat with each other, they play sports together, go off to drink together, help repair one another’s houses, and, most important, share terrifying risks; their loyalties to each other must, by the demands of the dangers they face, be instinctive and absolute.”

So writes David Halberstam, one of America’s most distinguished reporters and historians, in this stunning New York Times bestselling book about Engine 40, Ladder 35, located on the West Side of Manhattan near Lincoln Center. On the morning of September 11, 2001, two rigs carrying thirteen men set out from this firehouse: twelve of them would never return.

Firehouse takes us to the epicenter of the tragedy. Through the kind of intimate portraits that are Halberstam’s trademark, we watch the day unfold–the men called to duty while their families wait anxiously for news of them. In addition, we come to understand the culture of the firehouse itself: why gifted men do this; why, in so many instances, they are eager to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and serve in so dangerous a profession; and why, more than anything else, it is not just a job, but a calling.

This is journalism-as-history at its best, the story of what happens when one small institution gets caught in an apocalyptic day. Firehouse is a book that will move readers as few others have in our time.

How I got it:

I found it at a library sale.

When I got it:

About 3 – 4 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

To be honest, the cover caught my eye while I was browsing the sale. At the time, I didn’t realize this book was focusing on 9/11 — I saw Halberstam’s name, and remembering reading one of his books during college, so I picked it up. I’m not usually much of a non-fiction reader, but given the subject matter, the author, and the relatively short length of the book, this is one that I think I really do need to make time to read, and soon.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

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Following up: Reviews, news, and some HP too!

I’ve come across bits and pieces of information related to two different books I’ve read recently, and thought I’d take a moment to share some links of interest. Plus, a smidge of Harry Potter, because Harry Potter is always worth talking about!

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Immortal LifeFirst, some follow-up regarding The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot:

When I wrote about the audiobook of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks earlier this month (review), I focused just on the book content — what I enjoyed and what I didn’t, my overall impressions, etc. What I didn’t do at that point was to look for information about what has happened since with the family of Henrietta Lacks, the HeLa cell lines and their use in research, and the author of the book, Rebecca Skloot.

One of my questions while listening to the book had to do with the Lacks family. While the book discusses the sad situation of many of the family members, their financial struggles, and their inability to afford health coverage, it was not clear to me whether any of the book’s profits would be benefiting the family. A commenter on my blog was kind enough to mention that the author had started a foundation in honor of Henrietta Lacks, and that made me realize that I should share some of the information I came across here as a follow-up to my review.

First of all, Rebecca Skloot has established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, to benefit the family of Henrietta Lacks as well as others in need. Ms. Skloot is the president of the foundation’s board of directors, and contributes a portion of her royalties and speaking fees to the foundation as well.

There have also been additional developments in the scientific community in regard to the HeLa genome, the family’s privacy rights in regard to their genetic data, and the ongoing use of HeLa in research.

Some reading links:

Henrietta Lacks Foundation: http://henriettalacksfoundation.org/

New York Times article about the foundation: http://nyti.ms/1BOaypD

The Lacks Family website: http://www.lacksfamily.net/
(includes information on speaking engagements, pictures and videos, and a link for making donations)

Rebecca Skloot’s FAQ page: http://rebeccaskloot.com/faq/
(includes detailed answers to questions about HeLa research, new developments since the book’s publication, the impact on the story, her writing process, and more)

New York Times op-ed piece by Rebecca Skloot (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel”): http://nyti.ms/17TSE93

There’s a lot more information out there and tons of articles that come up with a simple Google search for “Henrietta Lacks” or “HeLa”. I’m glad that I followed up and learned more, and I hope these links are helpful for those of you who are interested!

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The StorytellerNext, regarding The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult:

The Storyteller (review) is a work of fiction, but its depiction of Holocaust survivors and the narration of one particular survivor’s experiences seem all too real. The book raises a question about guilt and regret; whether evil acts can be outweighed — or at least, counterbalanced — by a life dedicated to helping others. In The Storyteller, a 95-year-old man confesses to a young friend that he was once an SS officer who oversaw the treatment of prisoners at Auschwitz. The friend seeks help from a prosecutor who works to hunt down Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice. In the book, the characters discuss the difficulty of bringing elderly suspects to trial, especially as there are fewer and fewer witnesses still living with each passing year.

I was reminded all over again of the relevance of the issues raised in The Storyteller when I saw an article in the newspaper this week about the trial just getting under way in Germany. The defendent is a 94-year-old man who was a guard at Auschwitz, and is being accused of being an accessory to the murders of 170,000 people.

You can read more about the trial here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/11/auschwitz-guard-trial-concentration-camp-germany-reinhold-hanning

It will be interesting to follow the course of the trial and see the outcome, particularly as there are several similar cases still pending in Germany. I was particularly struck by this fact included in the article: “Of 6,500 SS members who are known to have served at Auschwitz, only 29 were ever brought to trial in Germany. ”

If you haven’t had a chance to read The Storyteller yet, by all means do!

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A final note:

After two serious subjects, I thought I’d end with something completely unrelated and totally upbeat: By now, I’m sure everyone has heard, but just in case…

HP8

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is being released in book form! *happy dance*

This is NOT another Harry Potter novel, but rather the script from the London stage production. The book will be released on Harry’s birthday (July 31st, for the Muggles out there), and is available for preorder now!

Some news pieces about the book:

From the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-35539552

From EW — a clarification from J. K. Rowling about what the book is and isn’t: http://www.ew.com/article/2016/02/11/jk-rowling-cursed-child-book

And the Pottermore announcement: https://www.pottermore.com/news/ww-publishing-cursed-child-script-book-announcement

I’d still prefer a trip to the theater in London, of course — but since that’s not going to happen any time soon, I’m tickled pink about the book! Who else is counting the days until July 31st?

Audiobook Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Immortal Life

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells–taken without her knowledge in 1951–became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book I’d been hearing about for years, but as I rarely pick up non-fiction, I’d never gotten around to actually reading it. Finally, I decided to give the audiobook a try.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman with five children who was diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer in the early 1950s, before finally dying of the disease in 1951. Doctors treating Henrietta removed samples of her tumor during her treatments, and these cells grew in culture at an unprecedented rate, becoming the first immortal cells ever created in medical history.

In the years since, HeLa cells have been used worldwide for medical research, and it is said that without the HeLa line, many of our current medical advances and treatments would not exist.

In The Immortal Life, author Rebecca Skloot explores both the scientific journey of Henrietta’s cells and their impact on modern medicine, and the lives of the family that Henrietta left behind. Amazingly, while HeLa was incredibly important and famous among the scientific community since the early 1950s, it was not until decades later that Henrietta’s family had any inkling that her cells had been preserved and were still being used for scientific advancement.

The author describes Henrietta’s early life and marriage, the birth of her children, and her suspicion around age 30 that something was wrong with her, leading to her treatment at Hopkins and ultimately, her death from a particularly virulent strain of cervical cancer. Henrietta is portrayed as an energetic, spirited woman and a devoted mother, who never fully understood her condition or her treatment.

Henrietta’s treatment at the time was probably not unusual, and there’s no indication that the medical care she received was not up to the standards of the 1950s. Henrietta was not asked for permission to take her cells for study, but again, that was not the practice at the time.

The book has many chapters describing the scientific impact of the HeLa cells, their use, their impact, and their study over the years. The book also covers topics concerning medical ethics, questions still under debate today, such as who “owns” the tissues removed from patients and who can and should profit from their commercialization. Some interesting examples are given, such as cases where millions of dollars in profit are made by the medical industry while the donor patient receives nothing.

Along those lines, we spend quite a bit of time with the Lacks family, most particularly with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. Deborah becomes Rebecca Skloot’s companion in her quest to understand Henrietta’s life and death, and her spirit and energy infuse much of the book. The author traces their travels together to the family’s rural home and through the bits and pieces of medical records which they manage to uncover. It’s clear that the family received little information about HeLa or what the cells actually were, so that Deborah often referred to them as being parts of her mother still alive, imagining her mother being experimented upon, and becoming agitated over the types of experiments conducted — describing at various times that parts of her mother were shot into space, used to test nuclear bombs, and infected with AIDS (all actually types of scientific work done using HeLa cells).

There’s a lot of fascinating information in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but overall, something about this book didn’t quite fit together for me. There are at least two distinct pieces here — the scientific elements related to the HeLa cell line, the use of tissue cultures, and the biomedical ethical issues; and the story of the Lacks family, their hardships, and the impact upon them of the fame of HeLa and the resultant loss of privacy for the family.

The author, in the book’s afterword, states that one of her purposes in writing this book was to bring to life the woman behind the cells, to make it clear to the world that HeLa is more than just nameless cells, but rather the living remnants that once were part of a real woman who had a name, a life and a family. I think the book absolutely succeeds in this regard.

Still, I couldn’t quite decide what the ultimate point was, or what we are to conclude about the scientific and ethical issues raised here. Was it wrong to use Henrietta’s cells for research? I really can’t believe that. Should patients have control over what happens to their tissues? Should patients have a monetary stake in research involving their tissues? What would that mean for ongoing research? These are big issues, but I felt that the nuances became a little muddy when mixed with the story of the Lacks family. It’s wonderful that Henrietta herself is finally getting recognition, but I’m not sure that this case proves anything when it comes to the confusing, often contradictory elements of the bioethical issues.

Regarding the audiobook itself, I question some of the production decisions made regarding the narration. Most of the narration is a straightforward read of the book, but quotes are read by a different narrator, with ethnic accents and dramatization. It’s not just the Lacks family that gets this treatment — a doctor of Chinese descent is read with a heavy Chinese accent, and there are a few others as well. This is a work of non-fiction, and adding this interpretive treatment of the text felt unnecessary to me, and ultimately, it was distracting.

The book itself is organized in a way that feels muddled and confusing. The chapters jump from present to past, from science to personal, and the transitions are quite abrupt. Particularly via audiobook, this jumping around makes the narrative hard to follow, and the logical sequence is occasionally lost.

I did find much of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quite interesting, and I was moved by the family’s story, particularly Deborah’s. Still, the combination of the two halves of the story didn’t quite gel for me, and the book as a whole wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be.

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The details:

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: February 2, 2010
Audiobook length: 12 hours, 30 minutes
Printed book length: 370 pages
Genre: Non-fiction (science/biography)
Source: Library (Overdrive)

Audiobook Review: The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the BoatThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics tells the inspirational true story of the US men’s rowing team who won gold, against all odds, in what was then one of the most popular sports world-wide.

The book follows one of the team members, Joe Rantz, from his childhood during the Depression through his years of college rowing, culminating in the victory in Berlin. Joe came from a poor family, with a stepmother who disliked him so intensely that he was abandoned at a young age and left to fend for himself. From an incredible inner core of strength, Joe made it to college at the University of Washington and joined the freshman crew program.

At that time, Washington was in hot competition with the Cal crew to dominate not just the West Coast, but all of the US colleges in national regattas, and from the start, Joe’s freshman boat showed remarkable promise. As they won their freshman races and then competed for the varsity seats, Joe and the boys in his boat faced ongoing struggles with financial hardships, family complications, and the sheer bodily torture that is needed to persevere and make it as a rower.

Rowing is a sport of skill and strength, and The Boys in the Boat shows us step by step what it takes to train, to master the physical requirements, and to gain the mental focus and determination to excel. By following Joe and his teammates, we see boys of a variety of backgrounds, mostly working class and struggling to get by, throw themselves into a punishing sport and come together to overcome every obstacle.

team photo

Early on, in the prologue, the author describes meeting Joe Rantz as an old man. Joe tells him of his childhood and family, and about memories of the Olympics in Berlin:

It was when he tried to talk about “the boat” that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

He goes on to define what so moved Joe:

Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both — it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience — a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.

The Boys in the Boat captures beautifully the open-hearted nature of the boys, their essential earnestness and deep friendship, and their passion for the boat, their school, their coaches, and their shared goals.

Woven throughout are chilling sections describing the Nazi rise to power and the role of Nazi propaganda in the 1936 Olympics, showing how Germany used the games to present a whitewashed version of the Nazi regime to a global audience. It’s truly disturbing to hear or read the parts of the book that describe the gleaming stadiums, the omnipresent swastikas, and the fates of those driven out or disposed of in order to present a pretty picture to the world.

I should pause for a moment to note that I am not at all a sports fan, and I never would have suspected that a book about a rowing team could grab my attention the way it did. Granted, I learned a lot more about rowing that I ever thought I’d need to know, and occasionally the narrative goes so deeply into times, techniques, strokes, and boat-building methods that I got a littly antsy waiting for the action to continue. However, the author does such a terrific job of intercutting the personal stories of the boys and the happenings of the greater world into the narrative of the sport that the whole is simply fascinating.

The audiobook is narrated by Edward Herrmann, whose narration I loved when I listened to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand last year. (In fact, it tickled me when Louis Zamperini gets a one-sentence mention in this book.)  Edward Herrmann’s deep voice has a folksy rhythm to it as he narrates The Boys in the Boat, so that I often felt like I was sitting around listening to a good-humored old gent telling me stories. (I have no idea about the narrator’s age or personality, but listening, I couldn’t help but envision a grandfatherly type, wearing a sweater, sitting in an armchair by a fireplace. I guess I need visuals when I listen to an audiobook!)

In reading or listening to a work centered on historical events, it’s no secret what the outcome will be. Just look at the cover and you’ll know that the boys did in fact win gold. You might expect there to be a lack of drama, knowing the end result, but in The Boys in the Boat, that’s simply not the case. The writing is so well-crafted that by the time I got to the actual Olympic race toward the end of the book, I had to remind myself to keep breathing while listening to the detailed description of how the US boat made it from start to finish, detailing practically every stroke along the way.

The epilogue is quite touching as well, covering the experiences of each of the team members immediately after Berlin, their war experiences in the years that followed, and what happened to each over the course of his lifetime. Perhaps most moving is the fact that the nine teammates came together and kept their connection alive for the rest of their lives, even doing anniversary rows together every ten years until they were all in their seventies.

I can’t say enough about how wonderful this book is, whether in print or via audio. The story is truly inspirational, and I’ve found myself unable or unwilling to shake off the images of this group of strong, determined athletes and what their boat meant to them. I strongly recommend this book — and no, you do not have to be a sports fan or rowing enthusiast to enjoy it.

A quick suggestion for those who listen to the audiobook: If possible, keep a copy of the physical book or e-book on hand as well, as you won’t want to miss the photos that go with the story. For some reason, the author’s notes at the end of the book are not included in the audiobook, so be sure to read those as well.

A final note: There are quite a few different videos available about the US Olympic rowing team, including footage filmed by Nazi propagandist and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Here’s a video that gives a great overview of the achievement of this remarkable nine-man crew from Washington:

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The details:

Title: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Author: Daniel James Brown
Narrator: Edward Herrmann
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: June 4, 2013
Audiobook length: 14 hours, 25 minutes
Printed book length: 416 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/history
Source: Audible

Audiobook Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.

My Thoughts:

Unfamiliar Fishes has been on my to-read list for a few years now. I’m fascinated by Hawaiian history, and have heard all sorts of good things about the author, Sarah Vowell. Since I’m rarely in the mood to sit down with a non-fiction book when there are ALL THE NOVELS to be read, I thought the idea of listening to the audiobook was rather brilliant on my part.

Sadly, the audiobook was a big disappointment, in several ways.

First of all, the content: Unfamiliar Fishes can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be history, social commentary, or personal travelogue. The historical facts and interpretations are there, sure, but mixed in are the author’s narrative of hikes, visits to Hawaii with her nephew, and other random observations. The history is presented chronologically — except when it’s not. So, for example, we may learn about a school founded by missionaries, then jump to President Obama’s school days and quotes from his memoir, before hearing from a modern-day descendant of native Hawaiians on her thoughts about the school, before returning to the historical record.

The narrative jumps from King Kamehameha to the last queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliʻuokalani — a jump of at least 80 years. When a section about the whaling industry and its impact on Hawaii gets underway, we have all sorts of digressions about Herman Melville and Moby Dick, as well as a visit to the Melville museums and tourist attractions in Massachusetts.

The story is all over the place, and particularly in an audiobook, this makes it hard to follow. Without being able to flip back to the last place where the history left off in pursuit of other digressions, it’s practically impossible to keep track of the various missionaries, chiefs, and Hawaiian royalty.

Second, the narration of the audiobook: Most of the audiobook is read by Sarah Vowell herself. To say that she has an odd voice is putting it mildly. Her voice is quirky and sounds as though every line is expected to produce a reaction, so that it’s hard to take it entirely seriously, even when dealing with serious matters. (Of course, some will love this kind of thing. I found it hard to listen to.)

What was even harder for me, and rather puzzling, was the use of some big-name comedians and actors to read sections of the books where there are quotes. According to the audiobook description, narrators include Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery. Impressive? Well, not if their voices are unrecognizable. Listening to the book, it just sounded like random people. Not all quotes were read by these folks — some are just done by Sarah Vowell as part of her narration. But every once in a while, when there’s a quote from a missionary’s memoir or a document written by some other historical feature, one of these random voices pops in to read it. It makes for a very weird and disjointed listening experience, and is distracting too. I found myself losing focus on the context and thinking instead, “Should I know who’s speaking right now?”

Having these people as the voice of the missionaries also seems to imply that we should view everything the missionaries wrote as funny or mock-worthy, and I’m not convinced that the actual content of their writing supports that interpretation. It’s certainly an odd approach to historical documents.

True confession time: I didn’t finish this audiobook. By about the 50% mark, I knew I was struggling. I tried to force myself to continue — I even took the advice of a Twitter friend who suggested listening at 1.5x speed to get through it faster! (Believe me, the higher speed did nothing for the quality of the narration.) Finally, I quit at about 67%. I wasn’t enjoying it, I was fighting to pay attention, and it just wasn’t working.

This was a sad DNF for me. As I mentioned, I do really enjoy learning about Hawaii, but this experience taught me very little except that I should find myself a more traditional history of the islands to read. Unfamiliar Fishes couldn’t seem to decide if it was serious or snarky, and in the end, it ends up somewhere in the muddy middle, not successfully achieving either.

I’ve heard from friends that two other books by Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, are worth checking out. Based on my experience with Unfamiliar Fishes, I’m not inclined to read more by this author — but if you’ve have a positive experience with her books, please tell me so!

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The details:

Title: Unfamiliar Fishes
Author: Sarah Vowell
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication date: March 22, 2011
Audiobook length: 7 hours, 28 minutes
Printed book length: 258 pages
Genre: History/social commentary (non-fiction)
Source: Library (audio download)

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Fabulous Non-Fiction Favorites

Top 10 Tuesday new

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week is a Freebie — we each pick our own topic. After much debate and a few false starts, I thought I’d write about my favorite non-fiction books. I really don’t read much non-fiction, but I’ve read enough over the years to be able to choose some real stand-outs.

My top 10 non-fiction favorites are:

Ice Bound

1) Ice Bound by Dr. Jerri Nielsen: The late Dr. Nielsen writes about her winter at the South Pole, her personal journey, and her battle with breast cancer with unflinching honesty and remarkable courage.

Poisoners Handbook

2) The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum: A fascinating look at the early days of forensics during Probition.

Don't Let's Go

3) Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller: A startling and disturbing memoir of a childhood in Africa.

Lende_Moose_pbk_cvr.indd

4) If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende: I go a bit overboard for anything connected to Alaska, and I really enjoyed this slice-of-life book about a woman raising a family in an Alaskan small town.

Life

5) Life by Keith Richards: KEITH! What is there to say about this book? Amazing. My only complaint was that I’d wished it came with a soundtrack.

Packing for Mars

6) Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach: If you like your science packed with humor, then you really can’t go wrong with any of Mary Roach’s books. This is the one I’ve read most recently, but I also loved Stiff, which taught me that it’s possible to laugh hysterically while reading about cadavers.

Fear and Loathing Campaign

7) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson: Everyone should read Hunter S. Thompson at some point in his/her life, and this is the one I’d choose above all others. It just has to be experienced — no point in further explanation.

Blind Side

8) The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis: This is the book that made me run around my house shouting, “Look, I’m reading a football book!” I am not a sports fan, and have never read another football book in my life… but this one was just so gripping, I couldn’t stop myself.

Devil's Teeh

9) The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey: A brilliant account of the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, the great white sharks that fill the waters there, and the scientists who study them.

Krakauer collage

10) It’s a toss-up between two very different books by Jon Krakauer: Into Thin Air, his classic tale of a disastrous Everest expedition, or Under the Banner of Heaven, a history of the Mormon church and exposé of Mormon Fundamentalist communities.

As I started working on this list, I kept jotting down more and more non-fiction books that I’ve read and loved. I was reminded that I went through a Vietnam War obsession phase and a weird neurology phase, and then there’s my need to read off-beat personal stories and adventures. In other words, although my reading definitely skews heavily toward all fiction, all the time, I’ve actually read more non-fiction than I’d realized.

Do you have a favorite non-fiction book that you recommend?

I’d love to know what everyone else picked for a top 10 freebie topic! Share your link, and I’ll come check out your list.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider following Bookshelf Fantasies! And don’t forget to check out my regular weekly feature, Thursday Quotables. Happy reading!

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Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!