Archive for September, 2011

Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Book Review)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks cover

Rebecca Skloot - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who died of an unusually aggressive cancer in 1951. So aggressive, in fact, that a sample taken from her became the first line of “immortal” cells scientists were able to curate, still growing and being used in research today. This cell line, known as “HeLa”, has been grown so extensively that the statistics sound impossible to believe, and they’ve been vital to many of the major medical advances over the past half century. For all their importance, though, the cells were taken without Henrietta’s knowledge, and the Lacks family didn’t even learn about this for more than twenty years after Henrietta’s death. The story of HeLa is well-known throughout the medical world, but author Rebecca Skloot brings this to the common reader by recognizing that the personal stories and ethical quandaries are just as rich a topic as the scientific marvels.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is written in a deceptively simple style, with an accessibility and sometimes glibness that makes it feel like a very long magazine article. Beneath this simple appearance, though, Skloot manages to take the reader in many unexpected directions and humanize an abstract concept. This is a rare, and much-needed, style of science writing.

The biggest contribution to “HeLa literature” is the unprecedented access Skloot got to the woman’s family and friends. Opening with a vibrant portrayal of Henrietta’s life (and a surprisingly disturbing account of her death), the book quickly establishes its sympathies and draws the reader in. After that, it’s free to jump around between a wide array of topics and times: The progress of the HeLa line through the scientific community contrasts with the unchanging state of the poor Lacks family, while Skloot’s present-day interest in the story brings her in touch with both groups. Skloot herself is a character in the book, her white, scientific, atheistic perspective being completely at odds with these people who still don’t understand what a “cell” is and are afraid to trust doctors even when they desperately need care. Don’t expect this to be just a dry, clinical book. Though there are chapters devoted to the scientific side, by the end, it is clear that the main story is that of the Lacks’ family’s journey towards closure with their mother’s legacy and recognition from the scientific community.

It’s a fascinating story, especially with all the factors intertwined. Debates and scandals within the medical community come up regularly, side-by-side with advances that sound like science fiction and the daily concerns of normal people. Harvesting Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge was only the first of many ethical lapses that appear in the story of HeLa, and they couldn’t have been better paced if this were a work of fiction. In fact, the revelations about what researchers may be doing with your tissue samples at this very moment will shock and outrage many readers. There are no easy answers to these still-unresolved questions, but this book does a great service by bringing them to popular attention.

The Lacks’ family is poor, uneducated, and most modern readers will be surprised by how close they still are to their subsistence farming roots. (In fact, the details it reveals about their lives feel like awkward breaches of privacy at times. Skloot is quick to reassure us that they asked her to bring the whole story to light, and I haven’t found anything on the internet to dispute that.) It is no small task making them come across as relatable characters to even privileged readers, but this book even makes conspiracy stories (Johns Hopkins kidnaps black children for experiments!) understandable from their point of view. That family would normally not belong in a book that also focuses on the elite scientists doing cutting-edge work, but the story of HeLa connects them both. In fact, all science can be tied to real life. This is something that we often forget, but Skloot’s writing brings the everyday relevance of science into focus.

Grade: B+

The DC Re-launch, Month One

September is coming to an end, which means that all 52 comics in DC’s relaunched line have now been released. They’ve sold incredibly well, proving my more cautious ideas wrong. Of course, now that they’re out, the thing that matters for the future is quality. How many readers will stick around for issues #2, #3, or #25?

I’ve read 20 of these, along with online news and commentary about pretty much all of them. My opinion can be split into two contrasting views:

  • DC had the opportunity to fix any problem that they could think of and re-focus their line in a way to stay relevant to 21st-century readers. Given that, it’s incredibly disappointing that they just shuffled their heroes around among their existing creators, with the truly awful ones keeping their jobs. Most of the titles feel like generic superhero stories, with no ambitious ideas. When they did take chances, they were as likely to just make them more violent or unbelievably sexy as they were to actually try something to make the comic better. There is no line-wide ideal driving this reboot, either. Justice League and Action both take place “five years ago”, when superheroes first appeared to an untrusting populace. But all the others take place today, and they make no attempt to reconcile that brief five-year timeframe with the extensive continuity that they’re keeping for the fans. (As one of many examples, how has Batman had four Robins in this time, even ignoring the fact that the most recent one was born after he began his hero career?) Looking beyond the hype, it appears that DC’s grand plan to invigorate itself is “more of the usual, but with a big ‘#1’ on each comic!”
  • On the other hand, coming up with 52 new titles did force DC to cast its net a bit wider than usual. Most of these may be the same characters and creators that have been presiding over the company’s slow decline, but there is now room for several new ones as well. And even if most people squandered their opportunities, some of them did jump at the chance to try something new. The result is that out of 52 books, there will probably be at least 10 good ones. A few of them could even be great. Maybe this sounds cynical, but I don’t expect every comic to be good, and this is an improvement over their line-up before. Even better, the high profile of the launch and the huge number of people buying the comics means that the good ones have a chance to pick up a following. Even if DC’s overall creative direction is as lackluster as ever, I’m a lot more excited about my specific choices than I was before.

It’s always been true that the quality of superhero comics depended on how you looked at it. Just like books, music, and everything else, there’s a lot of crap. Since the comics industry is so small and depends on interrelated titles, it’s a lot harder to ignore the bad stuff. But if you do, you’ll find some great stories. This new direction for DC seems to have emphasized both the good and bad extremes.

One thing that surprised me was how dark many of the good titles were. In recent years, there has been a pretty strong correlation between how violent and gory a comic was with how lazy and poorly-written it was. There are always exceptions, but among this month’s titles, it seemed that the best ones incorporated horror elements, while the ones that stuck to (relatively) clean superhero action felt like just more of the same. I don’t know if this dark turn is intentional or not, but I expect that it’s here to stay.

If you are thinking about trying out some of these comics, there are definite right and wrong choices. Fortunately, reviews of these are all over the internet. You should be able to find out which ones sound right for you. As usual, I’m going to wait until there are a few months’ worth of releases before I start doing official reviews. If you want some quick recommendations, though, here are the first issues that I would recommend:

Hank3’s Four September Releases (Music Review)

Though Hank Williams III, or Hank3, revitalized the country music scene with his metal-influenced outlaw approach, he’s seemed to be on a slow decline ever since the seminal Straight To Hell. Though even his lesser output was still notable, everyone has been wondering what would happen once his contract with Curb Records finally ended and their legal and creative feuds would finally be done. As 2011 began and Hank3 was free, though, there were several months of no news at all. When news finally did come, it made up for the long silence: Hank3 released four new albums on the same day in early September, showcasing the variety of directions he was now free to go in.

The albums are out now, and they definitely do have an impressive variety and dedication. They sometimes make an argument that his corporate controllers had kept him from embarrassing mistakes, but they also have some pretty amazing moments that could never have been accomplished as long as he was forced to play it safe and worry about commercial concerns. These may not be the best albums of 2011, but it is the biggest musical event of the year.

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Webcomics Roundup: Pushing the Boundaries

What makes something a webcomic? For the most part, the answer is obvious, but the actual significance of webcomics might not be as clear-cut as their literal definition. I first realized this years ago when a comment on the short story site Hitherby Dragons said that most people visited it as part of their daily webcomic rounds. I’ve fallen years behind on Hitherby’s stories (tragically – it used to be one of my favorite websites), but that thought has stuck with me.

Here are a few other sites that stretch the definition of webcomics.

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Confusion (Game Review)

The elevator pitch that I usually hear for Confusion is “It’s like Chess meets Stratego“. While this does cover a lot of the game’s basics, it’s also somewhat misleading. Because you can see what your opponent’s pieces can do instead of your own, it’s actually the opposite of Stratego. It will probably be easiest to show how the game works, and how cleverly the components support this structure, with pictures.

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Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games (Book Review)

The Hunger Games cover

Suzanne Collins - The Hunger Games

There’s a lot of buzz around The Hunger Games right now, with the entertainment industry hoping that will be the next Harry Potter– or Twilight-style phenomena. I’ll be surprised if it reaches that level, but it’s easy to see the appeal of this young adult book about a dystopian system that drafts random children into deathmatches. It’s Battle Royale with the rough edges sanded down and made (just barely) appropriate for a younger audience. Quite an audacious idea, really.

While the novel’s prose is nothing memorable, it is definitely a page-turner. Author Suzanne Collins has a great sense of pacing, and fills the story with more events than the simple premise leads one to expect. The tension ratchets up throughout the story, and this can be a very difficult book to put down. She also has an incredible character in Katniss, the narrator. Katniss is a tough, practical 16-year-old girl who has had to support her family in what is effectively a third-world country, and as such she doesn’t seem at all like a typical female protagonist. It only takes a couple pages for the book to establish her as shockingly unsentimental and out of touch with our “civilized” morality, but also to put that in context with her harsh living conditions and love for her family.

Most of the book is developed with the same eye to a strong and original characterization, though it is rarely fleshed out as well as Katniss’. It was never clear to me why the government drafts children into an annual fight to the death. The explanation is that they do it to keep the people of the “Districts” down and remind them that they are under the thumb of the “Capitol”, but this seems to be an ineffectual method that would cause more resentment than compliance. To the privileged people of the Capitol (who are portrayed as one-dimensional characters, obnoxious in every way), this is a thrilling televised contest. In fact, Katniss spends more time in the book trying to appease a fickle audience than she does focusing on the other children who are trying to kill her. Depicting these deathmatches through the lens of reality TV is a good approach for the novel, as it gives the readers a distraction from the violence while also highlighting its pointlessness. But it’s not clear what factors make the show successful for the audience, when most of the people watching are poor District citizens being forced to view it against their will. Somehow, being an interesting character can lead to sponsors airdropping gifts just at the right time to advance the plot or resolve a conflict.

The disparities between the enslaved Districts and the rich Capitol set up a political theme that looks to be the focus of the rest of the trilogy. At least so far, the logistics of this tyranny seem to be simplistic even by the standards of young adult books. I hope that this is simply a reflection of Katniss’ limited knowledge, and not really the extent of the worldbuilding. I’ll find out in the next book, but fortunately it is not a major problem now: The Hunger Games is focused on an immediate fight for survival, and the half-drawn world we are introduced to stays in the background.

Katniss’ immediate world is easier to accept. Her district and its people paint exactly the picture needed to make us accept this desperate, scrappy girl. She is believable despite the many coincidences and unexpected kindnesses that help her throughout the story. And the battle itself takes place over weeks in a large forest, which becomes a fully realized setting through Katniss’ search for water, shelter, and food.

While The Hunger Gameshas both serious strengths and weaknesses, Collins designed the book to take advantage of the strengths. This is a surprising character study, a brutal battle for survival, and an exciting novel that I didn’t want to stop reading. I have no idea if I’ll continue to like the series once it broadens its scope, but this is a great, memorable book on its own. Read this book now while everyone’s talking about it, not just for that reason, but because it’s actually worth talking about.

Grade: B+

Justice League #1 (Comic Review)

Justice League #1 coverYesterday, I explained why I was disappointed with the Flashpoint event that ended the current DC Comics universe. Fortunately, though, the new universe kicked off on the same day with Justice League #1, and it makes me more optimistic. This is far from a perfect comic, but it’s fun.

It’s written by Geoff Johns, the same person who weighed down Flashpoint with an unfocused mess of fan-pleasing ideas. Here, he finds a more appropriate avenue for some of the guilty pleasures of superheroes: By starting over in a new timeline, he gets to introduce popular characters and have them spar as they learn to trust each other. The conceit of this reboot is that superheroes have been around for only five years, and the world was very suspicious of them when they first appeared. So this shows Batman and Green Lantern running from cops, and the heroes get to be edgy while also being perfectly good.

This issue focuses on Batman and Green Lantern’s first meeting, with Superman appearing at the end. (Relatively low-profile Cyborg also gets a few pages, but the other three founders of the Justice League are not in the story yet.) Johns’ glee at letting these heroes bicker with each other is palpable.

Of course, this is what he does best. The characters are witty and iconic, the plot is simple but smoothly paced, and it feels appropriate to the heroes. Unlike most of Johns’ writing, though, it actually doesn’t require any knowledge of previous comics. This is a very important sign for this DC initiative, of course, as it needs to be accessible. (Well-versed readers will recognize the name of the big villain that is hinted at, but that’s in no way necessary to enjoy it. It’s amazing how rarely comics get that balance right.)

Jim Lee’s presence as an artist really sells this as an event. Not just because of his art, but because he works in comics so rarely now. One of the superstars of the 90’s, his art contains everything that was wrong with 90’s comics but generally does it right. Yes, the characters are all hyper-muscled, grit their square jaws, and make every pose dramatic, but Lee can make the scenes dynamic without just reusing a few poses over and over. He isn’t known for subtlety or expressive figure drawing, but in a book like this, it’s good that even the dialog-driven scenes are fraught with tension. The one flaw that comes through here is that the pages tend to be a little too busy and packed with action. Most comic fans won’t even notice, but that may be an issue for any new readers who decide to try this out.

Really, that’s the problem in general. Johns and Lee do everything right for their established fanbase, giving them a new story in a familiar world. They make the right motions towards writing a story for the rest of the world, as well, but only get halfway there. It will make sense to anyone with a passing knowledge of the major heroes, but I don’t know if it will feel compelling enough to bring them back next month. It’s a partial story, ending on a cliffhanger, and it’s only a satisfying read in itself if you share Johns’ love of these characters and can find their interactions interesting.

It’s dangerous to read too much info a single issue of a comic, so I’ll just say this: Justice League #1 resolves many (though not all) of my cynical concerns about DC’s relaunch and shows that at least some of the creators are taking it seriously, but it doesn’t resolve my concerns about whether DC can actually bring in new readers to stop its slow decline. If you were a fan of superhero comics at pretty much any point in the past, this is probably going to be worth checking out for you. If not, then hopefully next week’s Action release will be a better place to start.

Grade: B-