Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

In early nineteenth century Russia, one’s status is decided based on how many enslaved workers (serfs) under your name. Likewise, property owners do not pay taxes on the land own but rather on the number of serfs assigned to them at the last census. Even if a serf dies, a property owner must pay taxes on him or her until the next census rights it. In Dead Souls, Chichikov is an up-and-coming middle class man who has cleverly decided on a get rich quick scheme: buy dead serfs (called “souls”) from property owners to use as collateral in purchasing things for himself.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (published 1842) is a complex satire. And yet, supposedly Gogol did not intend it to be a satire. In all seriousness, he wrote that this part of the novel (part 1 was the only part he completed; part 2 was unfinished and part 3 never begun) was representative of Dante’s Inferno. This is, to me, a stretch, but I can see it. With the humor in the text, however, I saw Dead Souls as far more than a look at the depredation of man’s soul in post 1812 Russia. I saw it as an amusing satire of Russian society in general.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks died at age 31, her body racked with cancerous tumors growing out of control. She was a poor black woman in the public ward of Johns Hopkins hospital in 1951, a person who hid her intense pain from her family and friends as long as she could. Her story is one that could have been forgotten, if not for the fact that the cells taken from her cancerous tumors transformed science, research, and medicine.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a complex book. At times it is a biography of Henrietta Lacks and her family, from the early years of the century until today. At times it is a science volume, explaining the ways in which HeLa cells have contributed to cancer research, immunization research, and so forth. At times it is a memoir of one persistent researcher looking for answers. In all aspects, it’s a look at the history of race relations in America, especially in terms of medical care and privacy. I found it so fascinating, I did not want to stop reading, in my curiosity of what could possibly happen next.

The Immortal Life opens up plenty of issues for discussion: how would you feel about your cells being kept alive? What if it would further science? How would you feel about your deceased mother’s medical history then being shared with the medical community and the world without your permission? How would this story be different if Henrietta Lacks was not a poor black woman? How would her legacy be different if she were not who she was? What right did Rebecca Skloot have to open up her family’s past to a biography of this magnitude? What do you think of the ethical, moral, and cultural implications of Henrietta’s story?

Now that I have finished, I have yet more questions. I look forward to having a book club discussion about this some day. There so much in there to ponder, even including the presence of the narrator, Ms Rebecca Skloot. Wasn’t her actions just as morally and ethically questionable as the medical professionals? She pester the Lacks’ family in order to get them to tell her their story. It seems pretty clear that they did not want to talk to her, and only her persistence over years made it possible for her to write the story. Never the less, Henrietta Lacks is one of those well written nonfiction books that leaves me wanting more. Well done and highly recommended!

The Girl Who Owned a City (Graphic Novel Version)

As I mentioned when I reread The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson last year, I grew up with fond memories of the plot, characters, setting, and the entire premise of the story. My older brother and I would imagine ourselves conquering the world, pouring over maps and phone books to determine where we’d settle our city and get survival supplies in a world suddenly left without anyone over the age of 12.

When I saw on Netgalley that a graphic novel has been written, to be published in early April 2012 (by Lerner Publishing Group/Graphic Universe), I was more than a little excited. In fact, when I was approved to view the book, I read it immediately, finishing within a few hours of being approved. I’m that kind of a geek when it comes to this book.

Again, because I have fond memories of The Girl Who Owned a City, keep in mind that I cannot approach it, or the graphic novel (by Dan Jolley and illustrated by Joelle Jones and Jenn Manley Lee), with an objective eye. Reading a graphic novel of this favorite kids book was wonderfully fun, the pictures were sufficient for the story, and the story itself was, like the original, a fun ride along with some pretty self-sufficient kids who save the day. (Read my 2010 review of the original for more information about the novel’s plot.)

Suffice it to say that the graphic novel takes away a lot of the awkward gaps that the poorly written original suffered from. There is slight reference to the missing dead bodies of all the adults (they simply turn to dust, which is good, because any illustration of dead bodies would not have been a pretty sight to see portrayed in graphic novel form). There is also less awkward exposition about what people are doing because, let’s face it, in a graphic novel, you literally show those kinds of things. And the story moves quickly, focusing on the action and the agony Lisa, as leader, goes through, without focusing on unimportant explanations.Continue Reading

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Brief Thoughts on a Reread)

Yesterday evening I returned home from my classics book club meeting very sad. We read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and when I last read it, I remember wishing I could read and discuss with other classics readers. My classics reading group (last year, a total of four of us) agreed to give it a try this year.

Alas, the people in my group, different people from those who gave input on this years’ books, were nothing but scathing in their thoughts of Mrs Dalloway. It was too much work, there were no chapters, nothing happened, the characters were flat and boring (!). In short, they got nothing out of it.

I can relate to that feeling. I recently read The Red Badge of Courage and felt only joy when it ended because I was not enjoying it at all. But this was particularly hard since I so enjoyed my reread.

This post contains thematic spoilers for Mrs Dalloway.

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