Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Review of "Eleanor & Park" by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park is one of those books that kept making me think this is nothing like my life, and yet it’s exactly like my life.  So even if your high school years were filled with unrequited love and bad music like mine were (I owned every Jessica Simpson album at the time) you’ll still find yourself nodding along as Rowell tells you the story of two teenagers trying to fit in, and realizing that fitting in is an illusion.

There are a number of reasons to love this book, but I was sold on the cover alone.  Red headed girl?  Sign me up.  While Eleanor’s unwieldy red hair does get some well-deserved page space, there’s so much more to admire.  For instance, the way Rowell doesn’t rush the relationship between Eleanor and Park, but instead allows it to grow organically, the way a real relationship often does.  Although the reader is immediately thrown into the middle of Park’s heartache at the beginning of the book, we’re quickly taken back to when the two see each other on the bus for the first time, and the author lets the story unfold from there.  I appreciate that Rowell trusts her reader to stick with the characters as they move through the painfully awkward obstacles of high school dating.

In addition to the well-paced plot structure the book is also structured through the dual narratives of Eleanor and Park.  This is an effective choice because the reader can get both Eleanor and Park's unique take on a shared moment, as well as gaining insight into their personal lives and the moments they don't share.

Also of note is the ensemble cast, consisting mainly of Eleanor and Park’s families and peers.  Each character is fully developed, and I have to say that Park’s mom, Mindy, is one of my favorite fictional characters that I’ve come across in a long while.  Furthermore, the fact that I found myself clenching my teeth during the scenes with Eleanor’s stepdad also demonstrates that Rowell knows how to write a good asshole, which is as important a literary skill as any I’ve ever known.

Rowell also knows how to create atmosphere, setting the plot against the neon landscape of the 1980s with references to The Smiths, walkmans, waterbeds, and even Matlock.  Growing up in the weird spillover period where the 90s still felt like the 80s, Rowell’s descriptions instantly triggered sense memory after sense memory for me.  With my Northwest Indiana roots, I could also bask in the Middle Americanness of Omaha, Nebraska.  In many ways I was reminded of Joe Meno and the way that it’s often the simplest of scenarios that are inevitably the most complicated and therefore have the most heart.

So suffice it to say that I highly recommend Eleanor & Park.  I’m looking forward to reading Rowell’s other books Attachments and Fangirl, as well as her forthcoming novel, Landline due in 2014.  You can also follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.  Her tweets and posts are often self-deprecating, and always humorous and insightful.  What’s not to like?

Oh, also, I was watching a Youtube video of Rowell and she referred to Attachments, which is written as a series of emails, as an “E-pistolary” novel.  So basically I want Rainbow Rowell to be my new best friend. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

An Update from Your Friends at Reading Under the Covers

I thought this blog was done for, to tell you the truth.  Standing at the halfway mark of my MFA, the burden of a blog (talk about your first world problems) seemed like too much of a nuisance considering my coursework and teaching schedule.  Additionally many of the books I’ve been reading as of late don’t lend themselves to reviews either because they’re books of theory, or they don’t fit into the mainstream aesthetic of this blog.  However, I’ve been able to read a fair amount of popular fiction during winter break, and I’ll be sharing my thoughts on as many of them as I can during the next few weeks.

In addition to Reading Under the Covers, I’ve set up a Tumblr page called Clothes for Left Handed People, which is also the working title of my Master’s thesis.  Although my thesis, a collection of essays about my family and growing up in Northwest Indiana (at least that’s the plan for now) will have a coherent theme, I can assure you that the new blog will be a demimonde of debauchery. 

So read on, read well, and read what you love.  I’ll be posting a review of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park in the next day or two.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

“It’s about cells!” my professor gleefully said when I asked her for a brief synopsis of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Oh god, I thought, it’s about science.  My gut reaction was to tune her out, but I had to pick a book to use in my Writing & Rhetoric course, and the clock was ticking.  I had to choose a book that incorporated primary and secondary research in a creative way, and this seemed to be as good a choice as any.  Needless to say I didn’t begin the book with the highest of expectations.

The book surprised me.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me think about science and creative nonfiction in a whole new way.  Author Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black tobacco farmer who developed cervical cancer and was treated at John Hopkins in the early 1950s.  While at Hopkins, tissue was taken from Henrietta’s tumor, and from that tissue came the first ‘immortal’ human cells grown in culture.  HeLa cells would be used in developing the Polio vaccine, cancer research, and the cells were even sent up in the first space mission.

Henrietta and her family were never told.

In fact, Henrietta died shortly after the initial sample was taken, and it wasn’t until the mid-70s that her family discovered what scientists had done with the cells.  To this day, the family has never made any money off of HeLa, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Lots of people, myself included, learned about HeLa cells in freshman biology class, but few people ever stopped to consider where the cells came from: that’s where Rebecca Skloot comes in.  Skloot spent 10 years writing this book.  The book is full of meticulous research, interviews with the Lacks family, and Skloot’s own experience of uncovering Henrietta’s story.  With an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Skloot is able to tell the story in an informative and engaging manner that no one has been able to do before her.  Even my students, who had been nonplussed with my previous reading selections, enjoyed the book.  Rather than traditional research papers, my students had to write ethnographic inquiry essays and the book became a model for writing about a question related to a community/culture, uncovering the answers, and telling the reader about it in a personal way.  

I was lucky enough to meet Skloot during a talk and signing with Mary Roach at the Harold Washing Library last month.  During the talk, Skloot said that she never considered becoming a writer, and only took a creative writing course at her undergraduate university because it fulfilled the school’s foreign language requirement, which in some ways makes perfect sense.  Anyway, Skloot gave up her dream of becoming a veterinarian and began writing.  She’s now working on a new book regarding the ethics of animal testing.  During the signing, Skloot was patient, talking to everyone who got a book signed, including me.  I was delighted to see that she signed all the books with a purple fountain pen.

So even if science makes your eyes cross, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  You’ll find that the book is about much more than “just” cells (and even those end up being pretty cool too).