Sunday, January 30, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Warning - some spoilers

I'm not sure why I decided to read Never Let Me Go.  I'm generally not a fan of modern 'literary fiction' (too often, the author seems more interested in writing a great novel than a good book), I admired more than I liked The Remains of the Day when I read it 15 years ago. and I'd read a few movie reviews that gave away the plot.  Kathy's voice, however, drew me in, and when I was finished, I wanted to know more about the characters - my main yardstick of a good work of fiction.

Never Let Me Go feels a bit like an audio diary, recorded by someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Kathy has been a 'carer' for nearly 12 years, comforting and hand-holding donors as they recover (or don't) from repeated surgeries, and she's recently been told that she will soon become a donor herself.  Perhaps that's why she's in a reflective mood, looking back at what she knew and didn't know as a child raised in an insular boarding school.  The children at Halisham are clones, bred and raised to eventually donate their organs, a fact that they 'know' from a young age but don't seem to really understand.  They live until age 17 or so in total isolation, with an art-centric education and no contact with the outer world except for monthly jumble sales where they can buy (approved) items cast-off by the wider world.  They learn about their origins and eventual fate almost through osmosis - no one ever says "you are clones bred for spare parts and will die in your 20s or early 30s" but somehow, the students know.  They don't understand, but they know and accept their fate.

In most ways, though, the students at Halisham are regular teenagers, and the Never Let Me Go centers on three of them: Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy.  Ruth is the most worldly, a somewhat manipulative girl who seems a bit less resigned to her fate and maybe deep down believes that she might work in an office some day and have an ordinary life.  She and Kathy are friends almost because they have no one else - they paired off as 'best friends' when they were 12 or so and with no opportunity for new friends, stay together until an argument leads Kathy to begin her training as a carer.  Tommy was in their year at Halisham and although Kathy was his confidant, he starts a relationship with Ruth.  Several years later, Kathy becomes Ruth's carer.  Ruth believes an old rumor, that a couple who are truly in love can postpone their donations for a few years, and she encourages Kathy to reconnect with Tommy so they can both get deferrals.  The deferrals, of course, don't exist, and deep down, Kathy and Tommy know this as well.

I just read what I've written, and to be honest, it doesn't sound like a book I'd like to read.  I enjoyed it, though.  It's a January book - slightly melancholy, rather lonely, isolated and grey even when a group of children are playing on a sunny field.  Sometimes a book or movie just 'grabs' me, and I can't explain why I like it (or doesn't grab me and I can't explain why I don't).  I think that's the case here.  Never Let Me Go is low-key and reflective, downcast but not quite depressing, sort of like the middle of January when the weather is cold and grey and we're coping with returning to the dullness of normal life after the holidays.  If I'd read it at another time of year, maybe I'd admire it more than I liked it, but I finished it a few days after the most depressing day of the year so that's not the case.

Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

I love bookstores that specialize in remaindered books.  I can wander the aisles at a store with a 3-month lease or browse the Daedalus catalog and for a few dollars buy a book that I've never heard of because the description looks interesting.  Sometimes that strategy backfires.  Talking to the Dead was remaindered for a reason - it's a badly written book, and the story of the Fox sisters isn't quite compelling enough to make the slog through the imprecise grammar and almost random jumps in the timeline which characterize Barbara Weisberg's attempts to tie the sisters' story into the social framework of their era.

One night in 1848, Kate and Maggie Fox heard mysterious 'rappings' which they claimed were produced by the ghost of a peddler killed years before and buried under the house in which they lived.  The girls eventually became 'public' mediums who held seances for profit, then fell into ill-fated romances, alcoholism, and ultimately died in poverty.  In the hands of a gifted writer, this would be a compelling story, but Weisberg's writing style had me re-reading paragraphs to determine basic facts and her attempts to connect the spiritualist movement to events such as the Civil War and the social changes of the Victorian era die at the hands of her disorganized text.  Talking to the Dead, even in its published form, is what my friend Pam would call a "hard edit" - I can only imagine what the original manuscript must have looked like.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Matters at Mansfield (Or, The Crawford Affair)

I'm not sure Anne de Bourgh has any dialog in Pride and Prejudice, and I've never given the character much thought.  I'd always thought of her as a young girl, but she'd have to be Darcy's age if their mothers planned their marriage from the time they were infants.  Anne comes to life in The Matters at Mansfield, Carrie Bebris's fourth (and best) Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mystery.  Lizzy is the first to notice the change - Anne seems prettier and less retiring than before her long sojourn in Bath while her mother made an extended visit to Pemberly.  While Lady Catherine plots Anne's marriage to the vicious and foul-tampered son of senile Viscount Sennex, Lizzy encourages Anne to dance with her cousin Captain Fitzwilliam or with an attractive stranger, Henry Crawford.  Anne misinterprets Lizzy's advice and instead elopes with Henry (who comes across as more spoiled and less caddish than the man who would ruin Fanny Price and break her heart for a bit of fun).

Needless to say, Lady Catherine de Bourgh will not stand for her daughter marrying a nobody with a shady past and sends her nephews to find the couple.  An unfortunate accident on the return trip leaves the party in the Ox and Bull Inn in the village of Mansfield where Anne finds herself the unlikely center of two separate love triangles, neither of which amuse her mother who welcomes Henry's death because it would free Anne to marry Neville Sennex.  Or Vicount Sennex - anyone but Henry.

As a mystery, The Matters at Mansfield is just a shade above mediocre.  I solved the who and how (and guessed at the why) too soon.  As a comic novel, though, it's very good, especially for Austen fans.  Lady Catherine blusters off the page, Mrs. Norris makes a cameo appearance, and Bebris uses the visitors to the Ox and Bull as a sort of Greek chorus of gossip.  Bebris's first two novels leaned a bit too heavily on the supernatural for my taste, and while her third book, North by Northanger, was an improvement, it was largely forgettable.  With The Matters at Mansfield, Bebris has found the right tone, more than half-way through the natural life of the series.

The Demon Under the Microscope

Somehow, despite my chemical background and years reviewing pharmaceutical documents, I managed to know next to nothing about sulfa drugs.  I knew they were precursors of a sort to antibiotics, and that they were often (always?) a powder sprinkled on wounds, but that was it.  Antibiotics were stronger, less toxic, and effective against a wider range of microbes, totally eclipsing the first family of magic bullets.

More soldiers died from infection and disease during WWI.  Epidemics swept through crowded, unsanitary trenches and shrapnel drove mud and filth into the bodies of men who sometimes laid for hours or days in pools of stagnant water.  Doctors did what they could, amputating obviously infected limbs and flushing bodies with antiseptics we now know should only be used externally, but patients died at an alarming rate.  A generation later, things had changed.  Thanks to sulfa drugs, infection killed no one after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  As infamous as that day was, it would have been much worse without the work of a German doctor and his chemist colleagues.

Gerhard Domagk enlisted in the German army in 1914 and was wounded shortly before Christmas.  While being treated, the army discovered that he had been a medical student and transferred him to the hospital staff where he saw the horrors of battlefield medicine and how little could be done for patients with infected wounds.  In France, Sir Almoth Wright encountered the same problem - an expert surgeon and believer in antiseptics, he and the doctors under him were operating in sterile conditions and flushing wounds internally with strong antiseptics and still patients died of gas gangrene.  

Domagk returned to medical school after the war, specializing in pathology.  Eventually he went to work for Bayer where, following the example of Paul Erlich and his dye-based syphilis cure Salvasan, he worked with a team of chemists adding functional groups to dyes until he found one which cured a handful of common bacterial infections with few side effects other than temporarily dying the patent's skin pink.   Once this miracle drug (named Prontosil) was released to the public, French and American scientist worked on improving the drug, eventually discovering that it was the functional group - the sulfa - that killed microbes and that the dye did nothing but temporarily stain the patients' cells.  Meanwhile, Leonard Colebrook, one of Sir Almoth's assistants, put sulfa drugs to practical use in maternity wards.  A combination of isolating infectious patients and the use of sulfa drugs made the formerly hazardous hospital births safe.

Sulfa drugs didn't just revolutionize wound care.  As Thomas Hager points out in the introduction, before sulfa drugs doctors had few effective drugs and most medicines were patent medicines - snake oil which were at best ineffective and often harmful.   After the discovery of sulfa drugs, the nascent pharmaceutical industry invested in research and made modern medicine possible.  Doctors, too, underwent a transformation, from men who could do little more than check symptoms and comfort patients to scientists who could cure many if not most diseases (although perhaps at the expense of bedside manner).  Sulfa drugs even played a supporting role in the regulation of drugs, after over a hundred people died from a patent sulfa medicine which used ethylene glycol as a solvent, and early reports of sulfa-resistant drugs sent a warning (which was largely ignored) about antibiotic resistance.  We owe a lot to sulfa drugs, especially when you consider how they were superseded by antibiotics barely a decade after their introduction.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

U is for Undertow

My earliest memory is of catching my fingers in a folding chair.  We were down the shore, and my mom said I had to fold up my little green beach chair before I had ice cream.  I remember she was wearing a green-and-white gingham sundress (more of a mu-mu, really), and her hair was still long and clasped in a barrette at the nape of her neck.  My grandparents were there, and Dick and Frances (my grandmother's siblings).  My mom was holding my favorite red bowl - the one I had to have my Cheerios in every morning - and I screamed.  She filled the bowl with ice as Dick extracted my fingers from the chair, and I ate my ice cream from another bowl while chilling my sore hand.  When I was about 20, I told my mom what I remembered and she was amazed that I got every detail right, except my age.  I thought I was 3 1/2 at the time - I was actually 18 months old.

U is for Undertow turns on the 21-year-old memory of a small child.  Michael Sutton walked into Kinsey Milhone's office with a memory of seeing two men bury something a day or so after five-year-old Mary Claire Fitzhugh was kidnapped and presumably murdered.  His memory is so clear, and the story is so believable that the police dig up the spot - and find the remains of a dog.  He was close, though, right?  He did see a burial...except it turns out that his faulty (or false) memory has been an issue in the past and upon investigation, his story actually can't be true.  There are too many false ends, though, and Kinsey also feels embarrassed that she believed Sutton's story.  So she keeps digging, carefully, brushing away bits of inaccurate and irrelevant information like an archaeologist brushing dirt from a half-buried artifact with a paintbrush, until she finds out what happened in July 1967.

Sue Grafton gives us an advantage over Kinsey.  She sets a few chapters in the five years leading up to Mary Claire's kidnapping, so we have a pretty good idea 'whodunit' - or do we?  I've been reading mysteries for 30 years (longer if you include Encyclopedia Brown), so I'm rarely fooled.  Grafton fooled me three or four times in the first half of U is for Undertow, and I solved the mystery for good about the same time Kinsey did.  

It's fitting that memory is the theme of U is for Undertow.  The once contemporary series is slipping into the historical category, and as I read, I remembered life before the internet or ESPN in every bar.  Kinsey's personal memories come into question as well.  Ever since her mother's family established contact with her in J is for Judgment, Kinsey has assumed that her wealthy grandmother's scorn for her daughter's elopement meant that she didn't want to know her granddaughter.  A cashe of old letters and some long-forgotten photos cast doubts on this assumption, and on Kinsey's perception of the aunt who raised her.  Kinsey's personal story plays against the backdrop of her friendship with her 88-year-old landlord Henry, who I am convinced is the true love of her life.  Grafton probably has the last chapter of Z is for Z(ero? Zip? Zoo?) ready for the final edit, and I think - hope, really - it has Kinsey and Henry strolling into the sunset.