Hidden Figures and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: A Comparative Review

This weekend I finished listening to ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot, and in January, I finished reading ‘Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race’ by Margot Lee Shetterly. The reason I wanted to review both together and compare them was because the authors have, essentially, the same goal – to reveal to the world the untold stories of those who helped in some of the greatest achievements of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Hidden Figures looks at, as the full title reveals, the women ‘computers’ who helped in getting man into space, and putting a man on the moon; it mainly focuses on the lives of Dorothy Vaughn, Christine Darden, Mary Jackson and Katherine G. Johnson. Recently, it was made into an Oscar Nominated movie starring Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer; the movie, sadly, leaves out Christine Darden and looks only at the other three.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks takes the story of Henrietta Lacks, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer and her cancer cells seem to be immortal. These cells were named HeLa and proved to be incredibly useful in cancer research. Her story, and her unwitting contribution remained untold for several years until Rebecca Skloot came along and made it available to everyone. An adaptation of this is underway at HBO starring Rose Byrne, Oprah Winfrey and Renee Elise Goldsberry.

What I loved about the two books was that they were told very differently and yet served the same purpose. Shatterly, for the most part, kept her self out of the narrative and gave us a look at these brilliant, amazing women and their contributions to NASA, while, Skloot was an integral part of the narrative – she introduced the characters in her book, and then it went about describing how she got the information that she received and everything she, and the Lacks family had to go through.

Including yourself in the narrative is a nice way to add a dimension of emotion and opinion to it, and helps you get more involved in the narrative. On the other hand, Hidden Figures, manages to bring out the emotion of the story pretty well, and I got engaged in the narrative nonetheless. Though, I teared up more for Hidden Figures than for Immortal Life, probably because Hidden Figures was closer to home than Immortal Life.

But I must admit, initially I was apprehensive of that fact that Immortal Life was in first person, but I loved it so much once I got into it. And the experience was enhanced by the fact that I was listening to it in the audio-book format, so it felt like the author, herself, was telling me the story, and the narrator of the audiobook, Cassandra Campbell, does a brilliant job with it! The voices are amazing, and the emotion that she brings to the narration is part of why I loved the idea of the first person narrative in audio-book format, and it was her narration that was, partly, the reason why I was so moved by the story towards the end. Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot blends non-fiction, science-writing with a true story of the lives of the people directly related to the HeLa cells seamlessly into a beautiful and touching story that is a must read for non-fiction lovers, and science writing aficionados.

Hidden Figures gives us a  – mostly -objective viewpoint and presents all the facts to us, and yet it doesn’t fail in bringing out the emotion, and the struggle and their achievements. The writing was brilliant, clear and simple, and I loved the way she told the story- presenting to us, not only the lives of these brilliant female computers, but also the evolution of the agency that was to become NASA. It starts before the Space Race, and ends with a man on the moon. I particularly loved this story because the Space Race is something I was incredibly fascinated with, and – at least to me – the achievements in the 21st century context seems, in some ways, lacking due to the absence of the race element between countries, and given the current political climate filled with Climate Change Naysayers and those who would discourage science, the competition is between companies. But still, I feel that that this is lacking. So, I honestly feel that stories like Hidden Figures need to be told and re-told to remind everyone about how we got here, and that we shouldn’t waste the effort that it took to get us till where we are right now.

As a side note, the Hidden Figures movie is brilliant and Taraji P. Henson is amazing and I love her. I can’t wait to see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO in April!

 

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake Review

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I don’t usually like YA Fantasy; in fact, I actively avoid anything relating to that particular genre, because, as interesting as the premise may be, it will, inevitably, dive much deeper into the relationships, and how the girl is stuck in a love triangle, or quadrangle or whatever. No doubt, several paragraphs will be spent in describing how steamy the kisses were, how conjoined their bodies were during intercourse, how inseparable they were, how much they loved each other, and how devastated they were when the other died. Then again, my view is very prejudicial. I just don’t like the writing.

But man, oh, man this book. The premise was so interesting that I just had to pick it up to read, and as I was reading I was desperately hoping that, with every page I turned, with every new chapter I begun, the character wouldn’t fall in love with the nearest hot male character and then ruin the book. I was even willing to risk the love stuff for this book.

The premise is super interesting: there are three sisters, which are split up and given to different “clans” who specialize in certain abilities – the Poisoners, the Naturalists, and the Elementalists. These girls will grow up and learn their respective abilities, and when the time comes, something called Beltane, they will try and kill the other sister and take the throne. The time after the Belatane festival in which one of the sisters attacks one of the others is called the Ascension Year. And whichever sister gets to the throne, the respective clan will, therefore, reap the benefits.

There’s nothing particularly brilliant about the prose, but it nonetheless flows seamlessly. We are introduced to each of the three sisters and their closest folk, and we read a lot of rumination on the interesting magic system, and ways and means of killing the other sister through out the book.

The best part? There is only one tiny bit where a sex scene is described in detail, and that is one of the very very few intimate scenes in the novel.

The story is really interesting; I love the world in which they live; I love the magic system; I love the concept that the novel explored. It is really quite unique; I don’t think I’ve ever come across any such novel.

This, though, ends on a cliffhanger that’ll leave you wanting the next book immediately. I just cannot wait till later this year for the sequel. ARGH!

 

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood Review

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood Review

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This is the four hundredth year of Shakespeare, and his plays are enjoyed, and loved, and relevant today, as they were in his time. The Hogarth Press was started by Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf back in the early 20th Century. Virginia Woolf was a lover of Shakespeare, and that was reflected in her writings. Their goal was to publish new writing by new, up-and-coming writers. The Hogarth Press, famously, denied publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses.

In 2012, Hogarth was started with the same mission, and recently they started The Hogarth Shakespeare Project where prominent authors would take up their favourite Shakespeare Plays and would re-tell it in a contemporary setting.

This is the latest to be released, with more on the way. Margaret Atwood is an amazing writer, though, I’m a bigger fan of her poetry than her fiction. She has taken up The Tempest, and has set it in a prison.

As we know, The Tempest is a play about revenge, and is a bit fantastical. It follows Prospero as he brings on a tempest that shipwrecks Antonio, his brother, and his companions. He, along with Alonzo, the King of Naples, had tricked him out of his Dukedom, and now he seeks his revenge. He is aided by Caliban, a deformed child of the witch Sycorax, and Ariel, a spirit that he has trapped and now reluctantly assists him in his nefarious deeds. Meanwhile, Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, falls in love with Ferdinand,

In Hag-Seed, we meet artistic director Felix, who was fired from his position as he was directing a radical interpretation of The Tempest. Now, twelve years later, he is working at a Correctional Facility where he is teaching Shakespeare to the inmates. Here, he decides to put on a play based on The Tempest, because he learns that his former boss, and the person who was responsible for firing him, is coming to visit the Correctional Facility.

So, therein he finds the opportunity to enact his revenge, and what a novel way he takes it. This book works on two levels, putting on The Tempest as a play, and thereby taking his revenge, but also how pieces of The Tempest and the revenges are leaking into his life and re-fuelling his revenge.

The book is beautifully written, the characters work as themselves, separate from their Tempest counterparts,  as well as re-interpretations of characters of The Tempest. I don’t think I’ve read a re-telling quite like this before where the play is constantly referenced and is used a means of enacting the play in Felix’s life, and as a means of revenge.

The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and Margaret Atwood is the perfect author to re-tell it, and what a success it was. I absolutely loved the book, the language, the pacing, and the Shakespeare lessons one gets from it.

If you love Shakespeare, or you just love a good read, Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is the book for you!

Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

 

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These two books form a mammoth first part to an epic series by Dan Simmons. Hyperion follows a group of  seven people -The Consul, a detective, a poet, a soldier, a scholar, a priest, and the captain of the tree ship on which they are travelling – on a pilgrimage to Hyperion, where the Time Tombs are located, where they will, inevitably, encounter a mythical creature, worshiped by some, feared by almost everyone else, called The Shrike.

Borrowing from the structure and form of Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, each character shares their tale. The second one, The Fall of Hyperion, follows them as they navigate the challenging landscape of Hyperion, and the Time Tombs under the shadow of the Shrike, and the impending Ouster Invasion, and its consequences.

Both the books are mindbogglingly brilliant.

What I love about them is how different both of them are from each other; the first is divided into stories detailing the past lives of the pilgrims before the came onto the Tree Ship. And each story has a different genre to it, and each story shows their connection to the Shrike, and Hyperion. My personal favourite is the Scholar’s tale, where he talks about his daughter, who was conducting her research at one of the time tombs, The Sphinx, and due to some anomaly, she has started ageing backwards, and because of that the scholar and his wife have to take care of their daughter again.

The sequel, and the reason I’m reviewing them together, picks up where Hyperion left-off; Hyperion ends on a sort of cliffhanger, and a revelation that not all would expect. Hyperion leaves all our characters in a state of confusion, danger, and mistrust, and this is just the beginning of their journey. The Fall of Hyperion, as opposed to Hyperion, switches perspectives between the pilgrims, and Gladstone, as she prepares for the Ouster Invasion.

The second one has some twists that one wouldn’t expect, and it is perhaps the better one of the two.

I had been putting off reading this series for a very long time, only due to its immense size and the epic proportions of the book. It is definitely a Herculean task that you’d undertake reading this series; by no means is this an easy read. But every moment you spend reading this series, it is worth it, because of the rich atmosphere and the diverse world that Simmons creates. It’ll be very easy to get lost in world.

(P.S. I love the concept of time debt that is introduced, and, basically, all the technology thrills me and the little nuggets of sciencey explanation makes me very happy.)

Also, in some ways, the are some Shakespearean undertones to the characters and I love that about them.

This is one amazing book, and any self-respecting Sci-fi fan should read it, and enjoy it.

I’m currently reading the third book, Endymion, and subsequently, I’ll proceed to The Rise of Endymion, both of which take place several centuries after the events of Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion.

 

Version Control by Dexter Palmer Review 

There is no shortage of Time Travel stories in recent times; many TV networks have at least one science fiction show that involves time travel. So, believe me when I tell you that this book breathes new life into the Time Travel genre. Rebecca is married to brilliant, albeit weird and sciencalholic physicists Phillip who has been working on a Causality Violation Device (don’t you dare call it a goddamn Time Machine) and a mysterious organisation has been funding his research, trying to make Causality Violation a possibility. As the a story progresses we see that Rebecca and Phillip had lost their child in a car crash that had happened a while back, and Phillip, at least in the back of his mind, blames Rebecca and her drinking for it. Rebecca blames her self as well, but won’t admit it. Phillip has also been been engaging in an extramarital affair with his colleague, Alicia.

Time Travel theory is a largely pseudo-physics field that very few dabble in, though, in theory of course, Einstein’s GTR allows it. This book uses one of the many time travel theories as a basis. 

The experiment to test Causality Violation uses a small robot with a clock that is synced to the atomic clock in Boulder; this robot is then sent into the device and is then retrieved. In Theory, the robots clock should show that an hour had passes, while for them, outside the chamber of the CVD, it would’ve been just a few seconds. 

So theory states that the robot did travel in time, but it entered a different universe it was sent an hour later, rather that the time it was actually sent, and hence all the event were changed to fit that. This is a heavily scientific theory, and I would love to get into the he details of it, but I’ll save you the trouble. 

So, when Rebecca finds out about her husband’s infidelity, she is extremely pissed and she enters the CVD just to spite her husband and her work and the woman he’s been sleeping with; When she does that, she wakes up and everything is different, though she doesn’t know it, because her memory has been fixed to fit the new reality; the new reality is where her husband went to pick their Son up, and he had died in the car crash and not their son. There is another CVD-reality presented towards the end as well, where Rebecca died and not the Son.

Most of the book is devoid of much science fiction, other than the technological developments of that universe. 

The characters are really well developed towards the end, and the transition from one reality to the other is quite subtle; if you haven’t read the blurb or know what to expect, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Though, I will admit, it was a tiny bit of a task getting past the first hundred pages; it was quite slow, but then it picked up and it got really interesting. 

I really like books that take physical concepts and build fiction upon it, but don’t overdo the scientific aspect by giving some rubbish explanation. This book took one single time travel theory, and took such a subtle approach to it, without shouting it at your face. It is only mentioned towards the end of the second section. 

Version Control by Dexter Palmer is a brilliant book for the science fiction lovers, and time travel aficionados who really want a book that takes an interested approach towards time travel. I really liked this book. Definitely one of my favourite books of this year. 
My feelings towards this book would compare to what I felt last year for Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. (Which is also a brilliant book, go read it!)

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel Review 

Sylvian Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants opens to the discovery of a mysterious hand by a young girl. This young girl grows up to become a physicist, and is later recruited to uncover the mysteries of this hand, and its origins. She joins a brilliant pilots and her co-pilot, a geneticist and an even more mysterious interviewer.

The rest of the story is presented in the form of interviews and new reports, and it is a very cool way of story telling. I really loved the way it was presented to us, though initially I was apprehensive of it because I couldn’t understand how they’s convey the sheer magical, alien feel of this device/weapon.

I really loved the story, it had a very Ancient Shores, Stargate SG-1 feel to it (I actually realise, as I write this, that Ancient Shores and SG1 are almost, nearly alike, with few exceptions of course). The characters are really good; I’m surprised by how well developed the characters are though their consciousness isn’t narrated, all we get is their speech through the interviews and it’s really amazing how the characters grow on you.

Sleeping Giants is Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel that he self published a while ago and recently it was picked up by Sony, I believe, to be made into a movie. I’m really excited to see how this translates into a movie. I would actually love to see the events being played out in the movie, just as they did in the books.

The way I imagined it was a set of web videos of these interviews with documents and newscasts; I don’t know – this just sounds so much better than the movie. But, who am I to judge? The movie might actually be very good, like The Martian was.

Fingers Crossed.

In conclusion, this is a brilliant book, and I can’t wait for the next book.

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

Science Fiction Books off late have been very disappointing. They are either formulaic or they get very predictable, or they fall into the usual tropes which I just find annoying. I try to preface all my reviews of Science Fiction books with my distaste for modern science fiction, with a few exceptions of course.

It’s a sort of quasi-follow-up to Phillip K. Dick’s phenomenal The Man In The High Castle.  In a similar fashion, USJ open to Japan winning the World War, and taking over the Americas. Now, the Americans worship this Emperor as a God figure, and he rules over all this land with an iron fist. Any form of sedition is considered as treason; slacking, negligence or even laziness is considered a punishable offence.

Agent Akiko Tsukino, a member of the Japanese Secret Police, is this hardcore rule follower who’s first name should ideally be “Agent.” She meets Ben as part of her investigation into a mysterious and seditious game that imagines a universe where America has won the world war. She suspects Ben, but then enlists him to help her uncover the mysterious origins of this game, and it’s relation to his former General, Mutsuraga and the surprisingly sudden death of Ben’s friend and the General’s daughter, Claire.

I’ll start of by complementing the author on phenomenal world building. The way he describes this Alternate History version, with the rebel groups called George Washingtons; USJ having a Video Game Censor department and monitoring seditious activities through games; the God-Status of their Emperor; and, of course, GIANT FIGHTING ROBOTS! All of this, somehow, seems plausible. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Emperor actually turned out to be the head of Nintendo!

But, my point it that the story is good. It’s very good, in fact. Both the characters are so well developed by the end, and there is so much mystery surrounding both of their intentions until the very end.

The book is filled with references to both The Man in the Hight Castle and American History. It also has this really funny scene that related to Hitler (which I shall not spoil for anyone).

Oh! And did I mention GIANT FIGHTING ROBOTS!!

JAPAN ACTUALLY USES GIANT FIGHTING ROBOTS!

Yeah, so, I really liked this book!

 

The Girl on the Train

Gone Girl is one of my all time favorite Mystery/Thriller books. It’s perfect. Gillian Flynn’s writing is haunting and enticing. The story is enthralling and the characters aren’t all that black and white and they are intriguing. Now, when someone compares another mystery thriller to Gone Girl claiming that it is the “next Gone Girl,” I immediately take offence and I have to read this book to figure out what made the publisher falsely advertise this book.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins pulled me in because of the synopsis and that it said it was the next Gone Girl. I have read the book, I finished it in three days, and I can assure you, that it most definitely IS NOT the next Gone Girl.

Gone Girl is on a different level altogether. It’s hard to best such a beautifully crafted mystery.

The Girl on the Train is about a woman who is connected to the disappearance of another woman who is somehow related to her ex-husband and his current wife. The story, as many reviews have said, is one shocking twist after another. I beg to differ.

Yes, I agree it began really well, but it was all downhill from there. To me, it was predictable and it was a tad bit lackluster. The characters weren’t all that interesting. They seemed to lack something in them that a good character had to draw people in. The main female seemed a bit too whinny and so did her ex’s new wife.

I really wouldn’t suggest this book too often, unless it is something you’re into..

 

4/10

 

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe

Yes, that is the title of the book. It’s a very interesting book.

The book, as the title suggests, is about an Indian Fakir who comes to Paris to go to Ikea to buy himself bed of nails. He is armed with a counterfeit 100-euro bill and nothing else. Upon reaching Paris, he gets into a taxi and immediately makes an enemy out of the driver by tricking him with a counterfeit bill and the driver is now out for revenge.

While he searches for a bed of nails in Ikea, he goes to the cafeteria and befriends and falls in love with a French lady called Marie. After lunching with her in the Ikea Cafe, he orders himself the bed of nail and it is to arrive the next day. Unfortunately,  he has no place to stay as it was a one day trip. So he hides inside a wardrobe and is shipped off to England, and this is where his misadventures begin.

The book was funny! It really was. The author, Romain Puertolas, gives hilarious interpretations of Indian Names, though it may seem a tad bit racist, it’s hilarious.

The book is an easy, light read. Quite interesting, and it will keep you engaged to the very end. The end is also quite satisfying and I’m glad for that, because half way through the book, I had this feeling that it was seemingly going nowhere but then it picked up again. I’m glad that the author didn’t drag the story on for too long. It was just the right length and it was perfect in every way possible with respect to that.

If you want a funny, light novel to read when you’re really bored in the summer, try The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe. 

 

8/10