The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Too much Oprah

I watched the new HBO movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I hate to say it, but I didn’t much care for it. I very much liked the book, enough that I’ve made it assigned reading in some of my classes, but I wouldn’t use the movie in the same way. And, weirdly, what I consider a serious failing of the movie is considered a strength by other reviewers. Here’s Variety, for instance:

The HBO movie about this trio [Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, and Deborah Lacks] makes only one of the women truly memorable, but it’s worth seeing in order to witness Oprah Winfrey give one of the best performances of her career. Winfrey is mesmerizing as Deborah Lacks, whose quest to connect with the history of her mother, who died when she was a baby, forms much of the spine of Skloot’s book. (Henrietta’s cancer cells were unusually hardy, and became the source of the kind of useful cells that labs need in order to perform key biological experiments.)

See that last sentence? That covers in its entirety all of the science in the movie, completely. If you want to learn more about HeLa cells and their history and use in the laboratory, it’s not here. If you want to learn more about Henrietta Lacks, there are a few brief vignettes scattered here and there, but otherwise, it’s not here. If you want to learn more about the ethics (or lack thereof) of biomedical research, it’s alluded to, but otherwise, it’s not here. This is all about Oprah and her Emmy-deserving performance.

It’s not just me. Vulture, USA Today, The Ringer, LA Times, Time, and basically everyone who has reviewed it, says the same thing: Oprah was excellent, and she stole the show. I agree. But I think that’s a shame.

If you want to see a movie with some fine acting, with an impressive character study, with a singular character who sucks all the air out of the room when she’s on screen (which she is, most of the time), then The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO is the show for you, enjoy it for what it is. If you want a richer, more complicated story of the intersection between science and culture and how it affects one larger family, then read the book…which, I notice, is out in a new edition with a new cover that replaces the photograph of Henrietta Lacks with a close-up of Oprah, and that’s a perfect metaphor for the movie.

I don’t wanna make book recommendations

It’s that time of year when I think everyone got Amazon gift cards and then they go asking me to make book recommendations. It’s hard. Writing a science book is even harder. And there are a lot of bad science books out there.

One problem is that everyone wants the shortcut: there’s a hot new science topic, lots of people are curious about it, they want to know more, the publishers see an opportunity, so they commission a flashy pop sci book that will sate that curiosity. And it’s garbage, because it’s written by people who don’t know the basics, or because it’s written for people who want to hear that the answer is magic. Case in point: there are no good popular books about epigenetics right now, as far as I can see. If it’s got “epigenome” in the title, just scratch it right off your list. This may change, I hope it will change, but it’s an example of a topic where the situation is rather dire. That’s unfortunate, because it’s an important topic.

At the other extreme, there are the textbooks. There is a reason that textbooks exist, and it isn’t just the venality of publishers and the conservative nature of professors: they are dense repositories of basic knowledge. My genetics class uses Klug’s Concepts of Genetics, it’s not light reading, and to get the most out of it you should actually sit down and do the problems at the end of each chapter. Does that sound like fun? How does the $196 price tag sound to you?

There is a sweet spot in popular science writing where the author manages to simultaneously explain the basics and get them right, while also getting the big picture explained in an interesting way. Carl Zimmer consistently hits that target, Sean B. Carroll is good, Adam Rutherford’s Creation does a fine job of covering biotech and the origin of life, Nick Lane is always amazing. The microbiome was one of those buzzwords that spawned a lot of crap books, like the word “epigenetics” now, but Ed Yong rose above the dross and came out with a good general science book on the subject.

But it’s still really difficult to address requests for recommendations. Usually it’s because someone wants an answer that they can digest in a couple of days of light reading, and often, that can’t be done.

The correct answer is that what you need to do is register at the University of Minnesota and sign up for my classes. I’ll whip you into shape in 15 weeks of harsh discipline.

Tom Wolfe’s great contribution to literature

Wolfe wrote this execrable book in which he denied evolution, among other very silly things. It was simply entirely wrong and built on a foundation of shoddy scholarship and vainglorious ignorance.

But I do have to credit him with one thing: he has inspired some of the most entertaining book reviews ever. I haven’t seen stuff like this since Twain’s review of Fenimore Cooper. Go enjoy EJ Spode’s review of The Kingdom of Speech.

Who knew books could be divided into just two categories?

maryshelley

Here are six books that come highly recommended: the were on the Royal Society shortlist for the Insight Investment Science Book Prize this year. I’ve got two of them, I should probably add some more.

The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead
The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson
Cure by Jo Marchant
The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

Notice anything about the range of books and authors?

My first thought was that hey, 5 of the 6 are about biology or the environment. Excellent!

The winner is the book by Andrea Wulf, which raised a curious concern in the mind of an editor at The Guardian — by gosh, 2 of the 6 were written by women. Isn’t that remarkable? As he notes, women haven’t normally been recognized for science writing.

In the previous 10 years, only three out of 60 Royal Society shortlistees were female, with precisely zero women appearing on the shortlist between 2010 and 2013.

An injustice is slowly being corrected, I would say. But that’s not the interpretation Dugdale reaches for, strangely. As Tom Levenson (note: one of runners-up for the prize) notices:

Five days after the award was announced, John Dugdale, the associate media editor of The Guardian, wrote a piece that asked “Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?” You might think: Good question! Women have been writing great science books for a long time now. Why haven’t more of them been recognized?

But that’s not why Dugdale asked the question. According to him, the Royal Society caved to pressure created by the example of another “more female-friendly” prize. His piece suggests that the judges’ taste is shifting from “male” approaches to science writing that emphasize “a problem, a mystery, or an underexplored scientific field,” towards a feminine tendency “to focus on people.”

My jaw dropped at that clumsy attempt to impose a peculiar gender essentialism on science writing. Levenson must be exaggerating. But no, that’s exactly what he said.

So perhaps female science writers are more likely to focus on people, while their male counterparts are more likely to address a problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.

He goes further to somehow divide the attendees at the awards ceremony by sex. Somehow, he thinks there is some significant difference between these books based on the sex of the author, which is just plain weird.

The men on the shortlist introduced books about geo-engineering, eggs, the hunt for a non-existent planet and the history of genes. In contrast, Wulf enthused about her globetrotting genius and Jo Marchant read a passage from her exploration of mind-over-body healing, Cure – the only extract that reached for the messy subjectivity of the first person.

Has he even read these books? There’s just no way to split them into only two categories in a way that neatly segregates the Wulf and Marchant books into a common pigeonhole. Maybe he sensed a magical “estrogen vibe” at the ceremony that then suffused the books. Or maybe I had failed to notice that the authors of books written in the first person, like American Psycho, Fight Club, Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, Post Office, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time were all women. The surprising things you can learn from media editors at major newspapers…


Also, don’t miss GrrlScientists scathing takedown of Dugdale.

Shouldn’t a creative genre naturally gravitate towards greater diversity?

I like this essay about science fiction’s woman problem — it really hammers home the distorted demographics of the SF community, and on the surface, it seems very odd. This is a genre of literature that emphasizes strange, new, weird perspectives, and we’re supposed to be fans of mind-bending cosmic novelty that the Mundanes and Muggles just don’t get; we tell ourselves that the whole point is to turn the lens of “what if…?” back upon ourselves, and see how people and cultures would change if one little thing were different, if the future were a tiny bit different from the present. And what do we get? Lots of repetition of White Imperialist Men in Space. That’s fine, I enjoy a good heroic space opera myself, but can we also leaven it all with some variety?

I’ve been consciously selecting my light reading lately to avoid the familiar white authors — again, nothing wrong with them — and what started out as something requiring intentional effort quickly turned into a genuinely fun and stimulating pastime. There’s a place for comfort food, but once you’ve been on a diet of mac-and-cheese for a long time, and you start trying new stuff, pretty soon you’re unsatisfied if you aren’t getting sushi or bibimbap or falafel for dinner, and they stop being “exotic” foods and become that really tasty goodness that you crave all the time.

So the latest two books I read: Everfair by Nisi Shawl and Engraved on the Eye by Saladin Ahmed. Fabulous! You like steampunk, Victorian fantasy and SF? Everfair has all that, but in addition, it’s set in the Congo of King Leopold II of Belgium (he’s the villain, obviously, but actually, the whole dang colonial system is the bad guy). Just moving the story out of the usual London setting is great, but having a nightmarishly wicked villain who was actually real, and even worse than the novel portrays him, makes the story seem just a bit more fierce. You like sword and sorcery? Who needs burly grunting Aryan barbarians when you can have aging, overweight Doctor Adoulla Makhslood to admire. I found it gratifying to finally have a hero I can actually physically identify with.

But here’s the deal: if you’re really into imaginative SF, shouldn’t you be avidly seeking out different authors and different ideas all the time? You don’t have to like it all, but jeez, shouldn’t it be a natural phenomenon that all SF readers would be exploring strange new worlds on their bookshelves?

Blown away

cnv

One of the reasons I like attending SF conventions is that there are always smart literate people who will tell you about the books they’re enjoying. At Convergence, I attended a couple of panels that featured Amal El-Mohtar, and she kept raving about this one book that wasn’t even science fiction or fantasy — but she brought it up a couple of times as an excellent example of a story of friendship, and so I opened up my iPad, and looked on Amazon, and there it was for only $1.99, so I thought, “what the heck…” and bought it, and then I read it, and…holy crap, now I’m going to have to read everything El-Mohtar ever recommends. There goes my life.

And really, the rest of you need to go read Code Name Verity like, right now. Or you can tell me you already read it ages ago, and what took me so long? It’s just amazing.

It’s a World War II story about a pilot and a spy aiding the French Resistance, when the spy is captured by the Gestapo and the pilot is stranded behind enemy lines. It’s all about heroism and tragedy, and it’s a love story at the same time, and I swear there were multiple moments when I felt like breaking down and blubbing over it (but as a manly man, of course, I choked it all back and stared stoically at a wall until I’d composed myself). Although I’m still at risk of breaking down if anyone says “KISS ME HARDY” to me.

And all the central characters are women — fiercely courageous women. You’ll come away from it with a different idea of what it means to be brave.

Now I learn that there’s also another novel by the same author, Elizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire. I may have to wait a while before cracking that one, though, I don’t know how well my fragile masculine veneer can hold up under another blast.

Imagine a spherical apocalypse…

I’m connected on this lovely site called BookBub — they watch the booksellers and send email notifications of all the free/cheap e-books offered that day, so it’s a way to build up a fine collection of reading material at little cost, and also get introduced to new authors. Except for a few quirks…

I signed up to be notified of any science books that are bargains. There never are any.

I signed up for the science fiction category. There’s a regular flood of those — but I’ve noticed a familiar and tiring theme: so many books about the end of the world, zombies, plagues, etc., all about doughty heroes and heroines bravely surviving the aftermath and boldly going forth to battle the undead/bad humans who are now infesting the depauperate world. So not only is the story about 99% of the human population dying horribly, but then the story swirls around the protagonist marching about, fighting and killing other survivors (see also The Walking Dead). It makes no sense (ditto, The Walking Dead).

There is an apocalyptic novel I’ve enjoyed: Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. But that one isn’t about a battlin’ hyper-competent survivalist type who defeats his enemies and rebuilds the world by conquest — it’s about a lost soul numbed by the deaths who builds a cooperative community to survive, and that community rarely acts as an arm of the hero’s will. That’s a lot harder to write about than slash, slash, slash, as David Brin discusses.

No, the plague of zombies and apocalypses and illogically red-eyed dystopias has one central cause — laziness. Plotting is vastly easier when there are no helpful institutions or professionals, when power is automatically and simplistically evil, when there’s no citizenship and the hero’s neighbors are all bleating sheep. Relax any of those clichés? Then suddenly an author or director has to put down the joint (s)he’s smoking and think. That is why “competence porn” – about folks taking on tomorrow’s problems with energy, focus and good will – is so rare. It is also why a cliche-fatigued public is starting to turn eyes, raising them from fields of undead, looking not toward demigods, but toward engineers. See this explicated in my article, The Idiot Plot.

The yearning for more engineers in stories is Brin’s, not mine — I’d like to see more human beings struggling with complexity using a diverse toolkit, rather than pulling a soldering iron, a 3-D printer, and a rifle out of their back pocket, and solving all human problems by reconnecting the hydroelectric dam. But the laziness and simplification idea is dead on, and probably explains why a cheap book service is telling me about works by novice authors trying to build an audience and a reputation. Not that there is anything wrong with that — it’s good for new writers to have an outlet. But it’s bad news when genre writing digs itself an even deeper subgenre rut.

I am also cliche-fatigued and turning my eyes to new fields. Not engineering, though. I just logged in to BookBub and closed my eyes and clicked randomly on the page of preferences. We’ll see what happens.

What are your comfort books?

thefararena

The Bloggess brings up an interesting question about comfort books — those books you read multiple times, because they inexplicably make you feel good.

I was just talking with Victor about comfort books…those books that you read over and over because you find them comforting even if you don’t understand why. He thinks I’m insane and possibly I am, but there are certain books I turn to when my head is in a weird place and I need to go somewhere I’ve been before and relax. I’d tried to explain it to him and he almost understood until I started listing a few and then I realized that most of my comfort books are full of murder and angst and bizarreness and are not really what anyone in the world would consider to be a happy or relaxing read. Books like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Geek Love and From the Dust Returned and The Stranger. Worn copies of Bloody Business and Stiff and The 3 Faces of Eve and Alice in Wonderland and pretty much any of the Sookie Stackhouse series. Books that may not make it on my top ten list, but that I compulsively read again and again.

I thought about it, and I mostly lack anything like that — I like newness, so I keep digging up new authors and new stories, and I don’t do much re-reading. But there’s one exception, one book that I dredge up every few years to re-read. It’s probably one you never heard of.

[Read more…]

Commies everywhere!

I’ve just discovered the literary works of Mildred Houghton Comfort, a woman who wrote a number of biographies of Important Men of American Capitalism, back in the good old days of the 1950s. William L. Knight, Industrialist. Walt Disney, Master of Fantasy. John Foster Dulles, Peacemaker. Little Punk, the Baby Elephant. She was a prolific supporter of the conservative status quo.

These aren’t exactly popular books any more, but you can still find a few old used copies for sale. She also wrote J. Edgar Hoover, Modern Knight Errant, and there are a few pages from that scanned and available on the interwebs. It’s horrifying.

jedgar

Disclaimer: I was born in the 1950s, but I was tiny and innocent and unaware and had no idea what was going on. I became conscious in the late 1960s, a much more copacetic decade. This kind of crap was more the product of The Greatest Generation, which I’ve heard was perfect and admirable in all ways, unlike all other generations of Americans.

I haven’t been able to find out much about Ms Houghton Comfort, other than when she lived: 1886-. That emptiness after the en dash is rather disquieting, and lacking in closure.