Book Club Night

bookclubWhen I joined the book club, I didn’t expect to like all the selections. I welcomed the challenge of cross-reading and hoped to discover books I would not normally pick up on my own.

This month’s selection, however, disappointed me. In fact, I was unable to finish reading it. Among the other members, three enjoyed it immensely, two had lukewarm reviews and one other woman read only half of it.

The discussion was a lively one. The fans of the book praised the author’s use of dialect and enjoyed the references to jazz music, while the rest of us found the German-American slang tiresome and thought some of the characters were not fleshed out enough.

The book, in question: Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Man Booker Prize Finalist 2011. Shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

The storyline is a compelling one.

In 1939, an interracial jazz band called the Hot Time Swingers has been forbidden to play in Berlin. After the Nazis deport the Jewish piano player, the other members—Chip, Sid, Hiero—flee to Paris. There, they meet and audition for Louis Armstrong. While at a café, Hiero is arrested. The young twenty-year old son of a French African solder and white German mother is considered a despised Rhineland bastard. And to make matters worse, he does not have a visa.

As the novel alternates between the war years and 1992, we learn more about the relationships between the three band mates: the pettiness, jealousies, treacheries and split-second decisions that cannot be taken back.

While I did not enjoy the book, I was fascinated by Esi Edugyan’s writing journey. Unable to find a publisher for her second novel, she considered abandoning writing and perhaps, studying law. But first, she accepted residencies in Iceland, Hungary, and France. While living in Germany, she immersed herself in the culture and was inspired to write Half-Blood Blues. It was first published in the United Kingdom and later picked up by Porter Books in in Canada. After that  publishing company closed its doors, her agent found a new home for the novel with Thomas Allen.


Book Club Night

Last evening, I met with my book club to discuss Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s debut novel.

Kavita and Jasu Merchant are a poverty-stricken Indian couple living in a society that favors boys and considers girls a burden. Having lost one daughter to infanticide, Kavita decides to take Asha,  her second daughter,  to an orphanage in Shanti. She leaves her daughter with a thin silver bracelet and the hope that she will live and experience a better quality of life.

In San Francisco, Somer and Krishnan Thakkar–she’s a pediatrician and he’s a neurosurgeon–have been unable to have a child. Krishnan asks his mother in Mumbai to arrange for the adoption of an Indian child.

The story is told from the viewpoints of the three female protagonists–Asha, Kavita and Somer–moving forward in time from 1984 to 2009. Each woman has strong feelings about motherhood and India.  As they evolve on their respective journeys, they come to appreciate that country in different ways, realizing that “Mother India does not love all her children equally.”

Gowda has effectively captured the sights, sounds and smells of India. I could easily visualize the slums of Mumbai and taste the spicy food that Krishnan and Asha craved.

An excellent read!

Book Club Night

Yesterday evening, eleven of us gathered to discuss Rebecca Skloot’s bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Not my usual fare, but I was intrigued by this biography of a poor black woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five in Baltimore, was diagnosed with cervical cancer.  Before administering radium for the first time, the attending doctor cut two dime-size samples of tissue, one cancerous and one healthy, from Henrietta’s cervix. The doctor gave the tissue to George Gey, a scientist who was trying to establishing a continuously reproducing, or immortal, human cell line for use in cancer research. While all previous human samples had failed, Henrietta’s cancerous tissue continued to grow and has yielded an estimated 50 million metric tones of HeLa cells (hee-lah is an abbreviation of Henrietta’s name) since that time. Her cells have helped develop the polio vaccine, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more.

Skloot, an award winning writer who specializes in narrative science writing, took over a decade to research and write the book. During that time, she became enmeshed in the lives of Henrietta’s descendants, especially her daughter, Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. Skloot also brought to light the dark history of experimentation on African Americans

We all agreed that the book raises many questions about biothethics. How should research be conducted? Who should benefit from it? Why didn’t John Hopkins offer some kind of compensation to the Lacks’ family? As Deborah so poignantly commented, “If our mother had done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?”