Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

It is 1563 in Elizabethan London and Meggy Swann has just ridden a day's journey from the small village where she was raised to be dropped off in London at the dark, narrow, "Sign of the Sun" house. She has been sent to live with the Alchemist father that she has never met. He left before she was born to work on his dream of turning common metals into gold. Now he is in need of a healthy lab assistant and has remembered that he has a child. But when he sees Meggy he tells her he expected an able-bodied boy to help him and not a crippled girl. But she is stuck in London and must try to find a way to survive. Meggy, ever prickly, and sharp-tongued, has flashing dark eyes and an inquisitive mind. True, she must use two walking sticks to get around but she will find a way to make herself useful to the father who doesn't want her. Her only friend is her pet, Louise, a goose with broken wings.
The former lab assistant, Roger Oldham, has been ordered by her father to show Meggy where she is to sleep and to get her food to eat. He tells her of his plans to join a troupe of players and begin a new life. Roger also tells Meggy how to find him if she should need anything and how to find the market place where she can get food for herself. But Meggy can barely walk with her sticks, how will she ever be able to get around London by herself?
Meggy learns to make herself useful to her father and he finds it helpful to have her assistance in his lab. She is slow but she does learn to get around London to run the errands that he requires. Roger becomes a steadfast friend and the player troupe become an extended family to Meggy who finds friends and foes alike in the neighborhood as she goes out each day.
But there are strange men coming at all hours of the night to her father's laboratory. Meggy overhears of a plot to poison the Baron and she fears that her father may be caught as an accomplice. There is more afoot than turning common metals into gold. Meggy is turning into a stronger, braver and wiser young woman but will she be able to protect her ungrateful father, her friends and herself? To find out, read Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Honestly, I can't imagine a better tale.

A detective story that's at once mythically large and painfully intimate.

Just the simple facts are hard to believe: that in 1951, a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer, but pieces of the tumor that killed her---taken without her knowledge or consent---live on, first in one lab, then in hundreds, then thousands, then in giant factories churning out polio vaccines, then aboard rocket ships launched into space. The cells from this one tumor would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry and become a foundation of modern science--leading to breakthroughs in gene mapping, cloning and fertility and helping to discover how viruses work and how cancer develops (among a million other things.) all of which is to say: the science end of this story is enough to blow one's mind right out of one's face.

But what's truly remarkable about Rebecca Skloot's book is that we also get the rest of the story, the part that could have easily remained hidden had she not spent ten years unearthing it.: Who was Henrietta Lacks? How did she live? How did she die? Did her family know that she'd become, in some sense, immortal, and how did that affect them?

The book ultimately channels it's journey of discovery through Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah, who never knew her mother, and who dreamt of one day being a scientist.

Rebecca Skloot tells the story with great sensitivity, urgency and, in the end, damn fine writing. I highly recommend this book. ---Jad Abumrad