Quick Reviews: Atomic Habits, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Eyre Affair

While totally unrelated, I read these three books this summer and wanted to log that I’ve read them.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear

I borrowed this book from the library but I think I would have been better off buying it so I could take better notes to implement his suggestions.

Clear’s basic premise is that when we try to change habits, we start too big and we don’t change cues in our environment to encourage good habits and discourage bad habits. I’d be curious to try some tiny habit changes and see how they work, but I’ve misplaced my notes and forgotten a lot of the book (which I was distracted while ready), so although this counts toward my books read, it’s kind of a fail in books retained!

★ ★ ★

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

I’d seen this book on various lists and in bookstores, but finally I dove in and listened to the Audible version (which was excellently narrated) earlier this summer.

This book is about the intersection of science (specifically medical research) and the subjects of research (and racial and educational divides). It’s about the titular Henrietta Lacks, whose unique cervical cancer cells created a medical scientific sensation and provided the basis for so much research done over the past 60 years.

I thought Skloot did a good job of detailing a lot of the important research that having these cells has enabled, while acknowledging the disparity between the scientists who do research, the drug companies that create drugs based on the research, and the families whose biological samples provided the basis.

Medical research has a murky and sometimes unsavory history. I’m so appreciative of the ways I benefit from modern medicine, but I know that this came at the cost of many vulnerable people. I can appreciate the difficulties in getting consent for experiments and research, while being horrified at the way some scientists took what they wanted from less educated (and often minority) populations.

Skloot became close to the Lacks family–to Henrietta’s daughter Deborah in particular–over the 10-year process of writing the book, and her careful relationship-building as well as research really shines. Details about Deborah and the process of learning more about Henrietta are woven between more heavy scientific descriptions, which keeps the book moving for a layperson.

A fascinating and eye-opening read.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

The plot: in the book’s reality, if someone manages to get their hands on an original manuscript and alter anything in it, there is a cascading effect where all subsequent printed versions of the text change with the manuscript. All changes to the original change every subsequent copy (if someone murders a Dickens character, that character disappears from the text). The only way to remember the pre-change original is just to remember it.

Thursday Next (yes, the character’s name) is a book detective, essentially, and it’s her department’s job to protect original manuscripts. When Acheron Hades (yes, the character’s name) steals manuscripts and threatens great literary characters, only Thursday can stop him….

In general, I should say that I don’t care for retellings or modern authors getting their hands on classic characters and squeezing them into modern stories where they don’t fit well. It feels like they make too many changes to the characters while trying to tell a different story, and I don’t care for it. The characters don’t sparkle the same way, and I feel disappointed that they’ve misunderstood or angry that they failed to understand the character and bring them to life properly. Essentially, I dislike book character forgeries!

While I was cautious, I’d heard this book was fun, so I gave it a try (also, I purchased it for $1 at a library book sale, so the investment wasn’t huge).

So back to this book. Though it’s called The Eyre Affair, Mr. Rochester and Jane do not appear a lot (a feature, to my mind). But nearly every character name in the book was a pun or literary allusion (examples: Millon de Floss; one antagonist’s name is Mr. Schitt), which got a bit grating, and in parts of the book I could feel the author’s effort to be clever in ways that didn’t advance the story.

An interesting conceit of the book is being able to jump into a manuscript and interact with the characters and environment created. However, the characters in the book all 1) know they’re in a book and 2) keep re-living the events of the story over and over the way the author wrote it, despite how they may actually feel upon the 200th time re-living the events. I kept thinking “no, it shouldn’t work that way” (preposterous–I’m not the author, but it felt wrong) and was also horrified for these characters that they are trapped in endless loops that they know about yet can do nothing to change.

Another frustration was that most of the book was about Thursday’s mundane life and the parallel-universe the book is set in. Fforde spent more time detailing how the UK was still involved in the Crimean War than time jumping into books. The first two-thirds it’s Martin Chuzzlewit that’s in danger, but as it’s difficult to find something that rhymes with Chuzzlewit, Eyre had to do instead.

This was a solid “meh” for me. Overall I thought it was trying too hard to be clever and literary, and much like Charlie Lovett’s The Lost Book of the Grail, which had a similar feel to me, I think I need to stay away from books of this type.

While the conceit is fun (you can jump into books and interact with the characters!), the execution left me a bit cold.

★ ★

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