January 19th, 2011

Library books

Holiday Reading

After reading Scenting the Dark and Other Stories, I looked forward to Mary Robinette Kowal's first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey. I had to wait for the library to order it, and then I had to wait for my hold on it. I was rather pleased that I had to wait! Apparently this book was popular.

And why wouldn't it be? Shades of Milk and Honey has a great hook: it's the book Jane Austen would have written if magic were real. In this alternate Victorian England, many women (and some men) practice glamour, an illusory art that can make a dining room seem like it's in a jungle or can make buckteeth seem perfectly natural. The trick is that glamour is just a way of life. It's ordinary, a skill like knitting or painting. Kowal's descriptions of glamour, working the folds of magic to create specific illusions, are intricate and delightful, and, predictably, they were my favorite parts of the book.

The story concerns Jane Ellsworth, the plain-looking sister of beautiful Melody. While Melody may be beautiful, however, Jane is a much more accomplished glamourist. But is that enough to attract a husband? What about Mr. Dunkirk, her sister's suitor? Or Captain Henry Livingston, the childhood companion all grown up and come back from sea? Or Mr. Vincent, the itinerant glamourist? And what of Beth Dunkirk, Mr. Dunkirk's sister, interested in learning the ways of glamour? What of her apparently shady past? Why is Mr. Vincent so grumpy all the time? This will not do, I say!

For much of the book, nothing really happens, per se. We just spend time with the characters as they interact. Conflicts subtly seed themselves. Kowal nails the Regency style, especially where manners and propriety are concerned, so Austen fans will feel right at home. Once the major conflicts begin to arise, the various stories begin to dovetail nicely into a climax that manages to feature practically every character in the book.

Kowal has created what seems to be an effortless hybrid of fantasy and historical romance, although there is more emphasis on the latter. The story could survive without the glamour, but it's the glamour that makes the story...glamorous.

As he did when he gave me Blankets, my brother again managed to get me a graphic novel I had been wanting to read lately: Lost at Sea, by Bryan Lee O'Malley, of Scott Pilgrim fame. It's very different from Scott Pilgrim, though. He wrote it when he was 24, and he must have been really sad at the time. This short story concerns Raleigh, an eighteen-year-old girl who believes that she has lost her soul. Metaphorically, not in some interesting fantasy way. She has ended up on a road trip with classmates she barely knows on her way back to school after the holidays, and the classmates provide a little bit of the Pilgrim-esque dialogue and attitude we would expect from O'Malley. Mostly, however, Raleigh is introspective and lonely until she learns about the true meaning of friendship or something.

For many years after reading Batman: No Man's Land, I had wanted to read a couple of the New Gotham stories that now appeared to be out of print or something, but, lo and behold, here they were at Keith's Comics! So I picked up Batman: Evolution and Batman: Officer Down. The former concerns a plot by Ra's al-Ghul to take advantage of the post-NML gang wars to peddle some sort of elixir. NML vet Greg Rucka is at the helm, and he weaves in Gothamite prejudices against those who fled the NML (deserters, and thus DeeZees) or those who remained (Original Gothamites, or O.G.'s). The coolest aspect of the book, though, is the art, most notably the coloring. Each issue only uses two or three colors at most, giving it all a neat, stylized look. In Officer Down, Commissioner Jim Gordon is shot on his birthday, and Catwoman is the only witness. While Batman grieves angstily, it's up to Montoya and Bullock and the rest of the Batfam to solve the mystery. This is the story I had really been waiting to read, and it did not disappoint.

And I think it's not too long until Bruce Wayne: Murderer? starts. There was like this whole run in the late nineties/early noughts that I really dug!

What else did I find in Keith's Comics but the book omoo had been recommending I read for ages: Love Fights, by Andi Watson! I had enjoyed Clubbing, but I was looking forward to a romance set in a city where superheroes are normal (so it's like Powers with a meet-cute!). Jack works on a comic book about the Flamer, and Nora works for a superhero tabloid who loves publishing stories about the Flamer's illegitimate children. Jack and Nora meet on a subway, and it's adorable. They have a cute and awkward courtship slightly hindered by their professions.

Meanwhile, Jack's cat gets superpowers. No, really.

I discovered that what I had bought was only Volume 1, and I spent a couple weeks waiting for Volume 2 only to receive issue #2 of Volume 1, so it may be a while before I read the second volume and reach the exciting conclusion. If you are interested in hearing my thoughts, comment and I will let you know when I read it.

Though I actually read it the last couple weeks, I did technically start it over the holiday, so I'll throw it in this post: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, which you may have seen on pretty much every Top Ten Books of 2010 list. It is the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman in the fifties who had cervical cancer. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took her cells without asking, and those cells, dubbed HeLa, never died. And they single-handedly (single-cellularly?) changed the face of science and medicine as we know it. This is not hyperbole, and Skloot makes it clear through the many, many examples of research in which HeLa cells were instrumental. Vaccines, new therapies, new understanding of cancer itself, new insights into DNA, and so on. Without these cells—which I have worked with myself—I cannot imagine where we would be today.

While Skloot makes sure we understand the importance of the cells, her focus is on Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom those cells were taken. Yes, taken. These cells were taken from her, they were grown, they were sold, and she and her family received nothing. It is one hell of an irony that Henrietta's cells revolutionized modern medicine, but her children can't afford health insurance. But this is not an angry, condemning book. Skloot—a science writer who explains the science and scientific discoveries with ease—is more interested in the human element. Who was Henrietta? Where did she grow up? Who knew her? What do her children know about her? Well, it took them a couple decades, but they did find out that the cells of their mother were still floating around all over the world, and they weren't too pleased.

The book is divided into three sections: Birth, which mainly concerns the life of Henrietta Lacks; Death, which mainly concerns the scientific and medical revolution her cells caused; and Immortality, which continues that thread and introduces bioethics into the mix but mainly focuses on Skloot's interactions with the Lacks family as she does research for the book. To my surprise, despite my desire to know more about Henrietta—the reason I read the book—and my fascination with all the science, my favorite part of the book, the part when I was most engaged, was the last hundred pages, as Skloot forms a relationship with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter, and, together, they find out what they can about her mother. Perhaps because this is when Skloot is telling a very personal story, it feels so much more real and intimate. Skloot has a real knack for storytelling, however, and she's given very good material by, you know, the facts. So much of what she's describing is probably public knowledge but to someone who's unfamiliar with all the details, man, are you in for some fucking surprises.

It's a book that touches on faith, science, racism, bioethics, life, death, medicine, family, and many other things in an incredibly readable, well-researched fashion. It's a story that needed to be told, and it's a marvelous accomplishment.