Monday, July 27, 2020

Fidelity by Susan Glaspell

Susan Glaspell is a writer I have wanted to read for some time.  Born in Iowa in 1876 she was a journalist, novelist, short story writer and a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Alison's House).  In Iowa she was a member of a writing community known as the Davenport Group where she met her husband, George Cram Cook.  They married after he obtained a divorce and in 1913 Glaspell and Cook moved to Greenwich Village where they were part of an influential group of writers and activists which included John Reed, Emma Goldman, Upton Sinclair, Floyd Dell.  Glaspell was also a feminist and a socialist which is reflected in her writings. 

I mention all this because Glaspell's novel Fidelity (published 1915) is somewhat autobiographical.  The book is set in Freeport, a small midwestern town and at the center of the book is Ruth Holland who is returning home to say her goodbyes to her father who is dying.  Ruth left Freeport eleven years prior when she was 20 to run off with a married man causing a scandal in the town and she has not been back until now..

The man Ruth fell in love with, Stuart Williams, could not obtain a divorce from his wife.  When Stuart came down with TB, Ruth was determined to leave with him for Colorado where he could seek treatment.  But now as Ruth returns to Freeport all these years later she wonders did she make the right decision?  Her life with Stuart has not been easy.  Their love for each other has lasted but instead of building a future in Colorado they have struggled all these years to make ends meet.  They have been afraid to make friends, the town of Freeport continuing to cast a shadow over their lives. 

FIdelity is a book that weighs the pros and cons of whether one should follow society's norms or follow one's heart and the author gives both sides of the equation because it's not always an easy choice.  But what's not in dispute in this book is the danger people place themselves in when they can't move on.  This is shown to be true in the case of Stuart's wife Marion who out of vengeful bitterness cannot grant Stuart a divorce.  It's shown to be true for Ruth and Stuart who have lived for eleven years in Colorado keeping to themselves and maybe most sadly it's true of Deane Franklin, Ruth's childhood friend and now the town doctor.  Deane has never gotten over Ruth and he stands by her when she returns to Freeport at a great cost to himself.  

So many passages I wanted to quote from Fidelity but I felt I'd be taking them out of context and not giving people the true flavor of this novel.  I'm not usually a fan of midwestern regional fiction which can be quite melancholy but Fidelity is an exception.  It's a novel filled with interesting well drawn characters and important things to say about small town America and the people who lived there during the early 20th century.  I will certainly be reading more by Susan Glaspell.

Fidelity fulfills my 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic by a woman author.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

"I don't want to be immortal if it mean living forever, cause then everybody else just die and get old in front of you, while you stay the same, and that's just sad  But maybe I'll come back as some He La cells like  my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the world ... I think I'd like that"  - Deborah Lacks

I don't read as much non-fiction as I probably should and so about six months ago I started looking around for a non-fiction book that had received alot of critical acclaim.  In the end I went with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot published 2010 and I made a very good choice.  

So who was Henrietta Lacks?  She was an African-American woman born in Roanoke Virginia in 1920.  Her family were tobacco farmers.  She married and moved to Baltimore, Maryland with her husband in the 1940's.  They had five children.  As her cousin Hector would later recall: 

"Everyone liked Henrietta ... always smilin, always takin care of us when we come to the house ... Even after she got sick, she never was a person who say 'I feel bad and I'm going to take it out on you'.  She wasn't like that, even when she hurtin.  But she didn't seem to understand what was going on.  She didn't want to think she was going to die".

Tragically, Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 at the age of 31 from an aggressive form of cervical cancer.  But before her death, doctors at Johns Hopkins without her knowledge took a sample of her tumor for research.  It was standard practice back then.  Patients were not always informed.  

Henrietta's tumor samples were given to Dr George Gey who was the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins.  For decades scientists had been trying to get human cells to stay alive in culture but it never worked. The cells ended up dying so when Dr. Gey received Henrietta's tissue samples he wasn't expecting much.  But Henrietta's cells didn't die.  They continued to divide and multiply at an astounding rate becoming the first cells that could reproduce indefinitely, an immortal cell line, the He La cells:

"They have helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization ... if you could lay all He La cells ever grown end-to-end, they'd wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet"

Yet for a long time Henrietta's family knew none of this.  Partly the reason no one told them is that many in the scientific community didn't know who the donor of the cells were.  Some thought the original donor was named Helen Lane but no one was sure.  Eventually Henrietta's name did begin to get published and in the late 1960's researchers needed to locate her family.  A problem had developed with the He La cells and they needed the family's DNA to do more research.  So the doctors arrived at the Lacks home wanting to do a blood test..  

As Rebecca Skloot states in the book, this was the first time the Lacks family was hearing about Henrietta's cells and they were confused and worried.  Was Henrietta herself still alive?  Did they want to draw blood to test for cancer?  None of this was true of course but the doctors didn't do a very good job of explaining and misconceptions arose.  Deborah with children of her own was worried that she would die from the cancer her mother had.  After the blood was drawn she called John Hopkins repeatedly trying to find out if she had cancer but they never got back to her. 

As the years went on the Lacks family found out more about Henrietta cells as reporters came around. Also a man claiming to be an attorney gained the Lacks' trust but he turned out to be a con man.  And so by the time Rebecca Skloot a young science reporter showed up wanting to tell Henrietta's story the Lacks family was guarded.  They had been burned before by people they trusted.  

But Rebecca was persistent.  She had been fascinated by Henrietta's story since she was sixteen when her biology teacher started talking about cell division and the importance of the He La cells.  Deborah, Henrietta's  daughter, who was two when her mther died also wanted to learn as much as she could about her mother.  Deborah was in her 50's and in poor health when Rebecca came calling but the two formed a close bond as they uncovered the details of Henrietta's life.  

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an important book because without it we would not know who she was and the important contribution she has made to medicine.  I'm not very good with science but the author explains it well and it's also a book about medical ethics, racism, poverty, faith and it's a book about family.  I found the Lacks family members that Rebecca interviewed very interesting and inspirational  They have been poor all their lives but they are survivors with alot of wisdom to share.  In 2017 HBO made a film of the book starring Oprah Winfrey and Rebecca Skloot has set up The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help Henrietta's children and grand children with health insurance and tuition for school.   I think Henrietta would be pleased.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant (1850 -1893) is a writer that I had vaguely heard about over the years but as to what he wrote I could not have told you. Then two years ago my blogging friend Ruthiella (please check out her excellent website ruthiellareads@blogspot.com) reviewed his novel Bel Ami for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge and gave it high praise.  Now having also read the book I heartily agree.  This is a remarkable novel well deserving its status as a classic.

And so when Bel Ami begins we are introduced to George Duroy, a handsome young man who arrives in Paris around 1880 determined to rise high in Parisian society.  For George his good looks have always been his fortune and so though he arrives with very little money he knows that won't be the case for long.

After a few months in Paris, George runs into an old army buddy, Charles Forestier, who he served with when he was stationed in Algeria.  Charles is now an editor at La Vie francaise and he helps George get a job at the paper.  George has trouble writing his first article but that's no problem.  Charles tells George to go see his wife Madeleine Forestier who will write the article for him.  The Forestiers also invite George to a dinner party at their home and it's there that George meets Clotilde de Marielle.  She is a friend of Madeleine Forestier and Clotilde and George begin an affair.

Clotilde is alot like George, young, beautiful, adventurous with a taste for the seedier side of Paris.  George is very familiar with this part of town and is happy to accompany Clotilde on these outings.  Clotilde is also married but she assures George that this fact is irrelevant as long as one is discreet.  George has a good time with Clotilde.  She provides him with money, pays for their secret apartment and the restaurant bills etc.

George meanwhile begins to make his way at the newspaper and becomes rather good at his job but his position has no future.  He begins thinking about Madeleine Forestier.  She is beautiful, smart and has the drive and connections that can help a young man like George go far.  He professes his love to Madeleine but she is not interested. And in a cold way explains:

"My dear friend, for me, a man who's in love is erased from the roll of the living.  He becomes a half-wit, and not just a half-wit, but a dangerous one.  With men who are really in love with me, or who claim they are, I break off any close relationship, first because they bore me, but also because I don't trust them, just as I don't trust a rabid dog who might go on the rampage.  So I put them into moral quarantine until their sickness is over.  Don't ever forget this". 

It's quite a declaration and of course Madeleine sees through George quite clearly knowing he cannot love anyone but himself.  Still, when her husband dies, George is a help to Madeleine during Charles' final hours.  She decides to marry George with no illusions.  It's a partnership, a way for Madeleine to advise George so that as a couple they can rise high in French society.  George for his part has not given up his relationship with Clotilde and has also begun a new affair with the wealthy publisher's wife, Mme Walter.  As to how George's juggling act involving three society women and a fourth on the way resolves itself I will leave it to the reader to discover.

Bel Ami presents a very cynical picture of 19th century Parisian society and more generally a pessimistic view of life and love in general.  Some may ask therefore why read Bel Ami?  Well, for me two reasons.  First Guy de Maupassant is a masterful writer, very detail oriented in terms of describing what Paris in the late 19th century must have been like.  But also I noticed that the subject of death takes up a powerful place in this novel.  Charles Forestier for example is dying of tuberculosis which when he first meets George he dismisses as bronchitis but his increasingly terrible coughing alerts the reader.  Charles tries to remain in denial but everyone around him is not.  And then there is the elderly poet, Norbert de Varenne who walking home with George one evening tries to warn the young man about the kind of life he's living:

"Life is a hill.  While you're climbing up, you look towards the summit, and you're happy; but when you reach the summit, suddenly you can see the slope down, and the bottom, which is death.  It's slow going up, but coming down is quick.  At your age you're happy.  You hope for so many things, which moreover never happen ... get married my friend, you don't know what it means to live alone at my age".  

The author, Guy de Maupassant died at age 42 in an asylum.  He found out he had syphillis in his twenties and back then there were no good treatments.  When he published Bel Ami he was 35 and one can't help seeing parellels between George and the author who was also quite the ladies man, a cautionary tale perhaps? And what I am discovering the more 19th century literature I read is how many classic authors never reached 50 years of age but fortunately they live on through their great writing.

Bel Ami fulfills my 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic in translation.  The translator being Margaret Mauldon.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

For the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge (choose a 19th century classic) I decided to go with Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.  I wanted to read this novel because Jane Austen is always worth reading but also in Northanger Abbey, Austen pokes gentle fun at the world of gothic novels and since I would be hard pressed to name a writer less inclined to the gothic than Jane Austen I wanted to hear what she had to say on the subject.

And so when Northanger Abbey begins we are introduced to seventeen year old Catherine Morland.  Catherine is a good-hearted young woman who comes from a large and loving family.  She has led a sheltered life in the village of Fullerton and so when her neighbors, the Allens, suggest that Catherine accompany them on a six week visit to the city of Bath she jumps at the chance.

When Catherine arrives in Bath she is thrilled by everything she sees around her, the dances, the shops, the theater and shortly after her arrival she meets Isabella Thorpe and her brother John Thorpe.  The Thorpe's, unlike Catherine's family, are not wealthy but they have expensive tastes and so before long Isabella sets her sights on Catherine's brother James and John Thorpe tries to put the moves on young Catherine but she isn't interested.  Catherine falls instead for a young clergyman, Henry Tilney and the reader can see why.  Unlike John Thorpe who one critic has described as a blowhard, Henry Tilney, is intelligent, a good conversationalist and a gentleman.

Henry's family is also extremely wealthy, owners of the gothic style estate Northanger Abbey.  Henry and his sister Eleanor invite Catherine to spend a few weeks there and before long all of Catherine's gothic novel reading let's her imagination run wild.  She comes up with the idea that Henry and Eleanor's mother did not die from an illness years ago but rather that her husband, General Tilney, unbeknowst to his children has the poor woman locked away somewhere on the estate (shades of Jane Eyre).

Of course it isn't true and Catherine is horribly embarrassed when Henry figures out what she was thinking.  Henry doesn't hold it against Catherine.  More importantly he doesn't tell his father what Catherine was imagining..  As for Catherine she begins to have second thoughts about where her love for gothic novels has led her:

"Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented ... But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age.  Murders were not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb from every druggist". 

Although the above passage conveys Catherine's thoughts I sense she is also speaking for the author as well.  As Austen would later write to her niece Anna who was an aspiring writer "three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on".  Austen knew her world of Bath and it's environs and wrote about it beautifully but having now read three novels by Jane Austen I can't help wishing she would have taken a few more chances.

I enjoyed Northanger Abbey.  It's not her best book though possibly because it was the earliest of her six classic novels to be completed in 1803.  As for how things end with Henry and Catherine I don't think I'm giving away spoilers in an Austen novel when I say that of course it ends in wedding bells.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block

Eight Million Ways to Die published 1982 is the fifth book in Lawrence Block's acclaimed Matthew Scudder mystery series.  There are 18 novels in this series and they center around Matthew Scudder, an ex NYC police detective who now works as a private investigator. Scudder is very good at his job and since he does not have an expensive lifestyle it gives him the freedom to choose only those cases he cares about.

When Matthew Scudder is not working he can be found in bars all over Manhattan drinking away his troubles.  In the first four books of the series he could do this without many ill effects.  However, in Eight Million Ways to Die, Scudder is forced to take his alcoholism seriously, although at the beginning of the novel he is still in denial:

"A block further downtown I realized something.  I'd been controlling my drinking for days now, and before that I'd been off the sauce entirely for over a week, and that proved something.  Hell, if I could limit myself to two drinks a day, that was fairly strong evidence that I didn't need to limit myself to two drinks a day.  I had my problems with alcohol in the past, I couldn't very well deny it, but evidently I had outgrown that stage in my life.  So, although I certainly didn't need another drink, I could just as certainly have one if I wanted one.  And I did want one, as a matter of fact, so why not have it?  

As for the case Scudder takes on in Eight Million Ways to Die it involves a young prostitute, Kim Dakkinen.  She seeks out Scudder on the advise of a mutual friend.  Kim wants to quit being a call girl but worries what her pimp, Chance, will do if she tells him directly..  So she asks Matthew Scudder if he will approach Chance and convey her message that she wants out.

Scudder says okay, locates Chance, conveys Kim's message.  Chance says fine and two days later KIm is brutally murdered in a hotel room.  All fingers point to Chance as the killer but he has an alibi and in fact Chance comes to Scudder to hire him to find out who murdered Kim.  Scudder is skeptical but Chance puts it as follows:

"Scudder that killer's a loaded gun and I don't know who he's pointed at.  Maybe killing Kim's a way for somebody to get at me.  Maybe another girl of mine is next on his list.  I know one thing.  My business is hurting already.  I told my girls not to take any hotel tricks, that's for starters, and not to take any new johns if there is anything funny about them.  That's like telling them to leave the phone off the hook."

Scudder believes Chance and the rest of the novel goes along two tracks.  Matthew Scudder searching for Kim's killer but also dealing with his drinking problem, attending AA meetings and taking his sobriety seriously.

Eight Million Ways to Die is a pivital book in this series since its the book in which Scudder stops drinking but if you are interested in the world of Matthew Scudder this is not the novel I would recommend you start with.  It's alot more dark and violent than the prior Scudder books I've read (and that's saying something).  But I was particularly disturbed by one episode of vigilante justice that Scudder takes out on a mugger who granted intended to kill him but still Scudder went way overboard and it turned me off a bit.

So, best to begin with the first novel in the series Sins of the Father and become more gradually aquainted with Matthew Scudder, his good points and his bad.  As for me I will be on to book six in the series in a few months and it goes without saying Lawrence Block is an amazing writer and at 81 still going strong.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie published 1934 is the second book I have read for the March Mystery Madness Challenge and it also fulfills the 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose an adapted classic.  I enjoyed this mystery a great deal and I am looking forward to watching Kenneth Branagh film version of the novel when it airs tomorrow.

The plot is pretty straightforward.  A passenger, Mr. Ratchett, is murdered on the Orient Express as it travels through Europe.  Mr. Ratchett is killed in the middle of the night in his sleeping car but due to a snow storm the train is stopped and whoever killed him is unable to escape.  The first class section where the murder occurred is closed off from the rest of the train so the killer must be one of the thirteen passengers residing in first class.  But who and why?

Agatha Christie's legendary Detective, Hercule Poirot, is on the train travelling to a business appointment in London.  Assisting him in solving the murder will be his friend M Bouc, an exec with the Orient Express Company and Dr. Constantine who agrees to fill in as a coroner.  These three will interview the passengers, search luggage and debate back and forth as to who the killer might be but as always its Poirot's instincts that are worth following.

One of the problems I have found with reviewing a mystery is that to really discuss this book properly and quote the passages I would like to quote I would need to give away too many clues.  Suffice it to say that if you have never read Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express is a very good place to begin.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green

Anna Katharine Green (1846 -1935) has been called the Mother of American Detective Fiction and during her lifetime she was the author of over thirty mystery novels.  Ms. Green's most famous novel, The Leavenworth Case, published 1878 would go on to sell over a million copies.  I first heard about this book a few years back in the pages of Ellery Queen Magazine and how The Leavenworth Case was a novel not to be missed.  I heartily agree.  It's a suprisingly good mystery and a very good novel period.

The book is set in New York City during the 1870's.  The plot centers around Horatio Leavenworth, a wealthy businessman who is murdered late at night in his study.  The mansion in which he lived is locked from the inside each evening and not opened until the next morning and so whoever the killer is came from inside the house and there are a range of suspects.

Living with Mr. Leavenworth for example are his two nieices Mary and Eleanor Leavenworth.  Mary and Eleanor are cousins, their respective parents having died in the same accident years ago.  Mr. Leavenworth has been raising them ever since and he has been a good father to these girls who are now young women.  But there has always been a caveat.  Mr. Leavenworth made it clear from the start that Mary Leavenworth would inherit his entire fortune. It's a cruel thing to do to Eleanor but she has never complained.  As for Mary she has grown up spoiled, taught to value money too highly.  Both women therefore have motive.  Has Eleanor been harboring a supressed rage all these years over having been left out of the will?  Is Mary afraid the will is about to be changed?

There were other people in the house as well that night.  Truman Harwell, Mr. Leavenworth's personal secretary.  Hannah the maid who flees the house the morning after the murder.  Thomas Dougherty the Butler and Henry Clavering who was seen visiting the house the day of the murder.  Narrating the Leavenwort Case is a young attorney by the name of Mr. Raymond who joins forces with Detective Ebenezer Gryce who would appear in a number of Anna Katharine Green's novels.  Gryce is an unassuming sort of man but he misses nothing.

In some ways The Leavenworth Case might seem like a standard mystery but the quality of the writing the characterization and how well plotted this book is make this novel so much more and maybe the biggest mystery is why The Leavenworth Case was allowed to fall into obscurity for so long. 

The Leavenworth Case fulfills two challenges I am taking this year:  March Mystery Madness and the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge - -choose a genre classic.