Books, Reading

A brief return to an old love

I’ve had no book budget this year, so when I learn of a book I think will interest me I add it to my request list at our library. I’ve been waiting months for some books, but suddenly I have five to read in the next two weeks—and I’m not a fast reader.

I read about this book before its release, but then in the midst of trying to get my own book ready to publish, I forgot about it. Now, I’m halfway through reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and I’m fascinated. Not counting memoir, this is the first non-writing non-fiction book I’ve read in two years. I missed it. I’m glad I broke my fast with this book.

From the author’s website:

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, in vitro fertilization, 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.

Soon to be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, this New York Times bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 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. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it?

Craft, Fiction, Imagination, Novel, Questions, Short story, Writing

Are you the best one?

As I was scrubbing the stovetop Monday, I was thinking about writing—what else? There’s a question I’ve seen asked, both online and in writing manuals, that always surprises me. The wording may vary, but essentially this is the question: Why are you the best one to write this novel/story?

I understand asking that question of a non-fiction writer. If you’ve never visited Spain, I doubt you’re the best person to write a travel guide for that country. But this question is also asked of fiction writers, and that makes less sense to me.

Yes, it might be difficult for a lifelong bachelor to write plausibly as a young wife and mother. Then again, there’s always research. That bachelor likely knows a young wife and mother or two. The woman writing from a male point of view, probably has male family members and friends from whom to draw the character.

Likewise, the writers of crime and horror fiction don’t have to be murderers or monsters themselves. And it’s probably a sure bet the writer of a middle-grade fantasy is not eleven years old with personal knowledge of dragons, or fairies, or magical spells.

What these writers do have is life experience, imagination, and, let’s assume, the ability to craft a story. But added to those, isn’t the most important qualification for writing any particular story having the idea for it? By “idea” I mean more than a fleeting thought. I mean the basic premise expanded in the writer’s brain to a fully-formed story idea.

Am I missing the point of the question? Isn’t the fact that the idea came to YOU the primary reason you are the best one to write the story or novel?

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Books, Dream, Life, Memory, Reflections, Writing

Witch Hunt

Lately, I’ve had several vivid dreams, though I only remember snatches when I wake. The other night I dreamed I was standing in the dark, looking at flames. I felt … odd. I woke at that point, but the dream stayed with me as I stepped into the bathroom. I realized what I felt was a mixture of things, a contradiction—power and fear? joy and despair? Not until the next morning did the location of this dream scene flash before me.

They say there are strangers who threaten us,

In our theaters and bookstore shelves,

That those who know what’s best for us

Must rise and save us from ourselves.

from “Witch Hunt” — Lyric by Neil Peart

This was a scene from my past. A memory of the night I stood in the parking lot of Windsor Village Baptist Church and participated in a book burning. This was the mid-70s, the era of The Exorcist, and my church was in the midst of Satan-mania.

Whenever this memory surfaces, I try to remember what books I burned, though I’m sure I’ll never have the complete list. I had little money to buy books, and probably owned no more than twenty—mostly paperbacks and used library books. Ironically, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was one of the books I burned.

Other fiction thrown on the pyre was Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Jacqueline Suzanne’s Valley of the Dolls. But even non-fiction like Jess Stearns’ The Search for the Girl with the Blue Eyes or Marian L. Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts or—unbelievably—Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings did not escape my zeal. Nor did Khalil Gibran’s poetic The Prophet. I ruthlessly routed out their potential “demonic influence.”

I was a different person then. I was one of those the Rush song refers to, thinking I knew what was best, I became one of those strangers—to myself. The memory of that frightens me. The thought I might again be so easily influenced, frightens me even more.

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Books, Fiction, Horror, Musings, Reading, Reflections

How I read from there to here!

Recently, I’ve been thinking of all the books I’ve read in my life … not that I can actually remember them all—or even a third. Specifically, I’ve thought of different categories of books and when I read them. While waiting for my first son to be born I read the likes of Updike, Angelou, and Bradbury. By the time my second son was born, less than two years after the first, I used my reading time mostly to escape with Holt, du Maurier, and Clark.

They looked like angels.

Fast forward a few years and two more sons. As I recall, at that time, my tastes in reading seemed to fall mainly in two categories: horror and humor. Hello, King and Bombeck. This probably makes perfect sense to any mothers reading this.

By that time, I was also heavily involved in the church and that’s when non-fiction began to outweigh fiction. For the next 20+ years, I read far less fiction. Oddly—or maybe not—my fiction choices during that time were almost exclusively horror. I ended that period with two large bookcases, one filled with religious books and the other with King, Straub, Rice, Harris, and non-fiction books on the supernatural.

They might kill me for this one, circa 1993!

Then, my sons were grown and I rediscovered fiction. I eased in with Auel, Binchy, Gabaldon and then, I discovered my true love—Southern fiction—in the likes of Tyler, Reynolds, Smith, Walker.  When one future daughter-in-law recommended I widen my reading scope, I discovered books most of you had probably read when they were on the bestsellers list: Marquez, Russo, Hijuelos, Proulx, McCullers, and short story collections by O’Connor and Munro. The floodgates open, it seems now I discover a new favorite fiction author every week.

How about you? Has your adult reading path meandered or or been straight and sure?

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Polls, Writing

What does this tell you?

All right, the polls are closed and we have a new President … no, wait … that was a different vote. Maybe it’s my virus-addled brain today, but I’m not sure what to say about the results of the last polls. I wasn’t surprised to see that most of us write some type of fiction. We imaginative types seem to gravitate together. I was a little surprised that none of you claimed to ever write straight non-fiction (which is why that poll result is missing.) Of course, the creative non-fiction total got a boost from the addition of the blogging category.

 I cast my votes in literary, women’s fiction, and blogging. I could have cast a vote in horror, which is what I used to write, but I’m not sure I want to write than any longer. I also would have cast a vote for short stories, but I don’t feel I’ve written a successful one yet. However, if the rest of you voted for more than one category, that would indicate that a considerable few less people participated in this polling than voted in the original poll. Sniff, sniff, am I losing my audience?

 If you’d care to step up and claim your votes in a comment, please do. And do come back later for my next post in which I reveal how blogging can lead to public embarrassment.