A Very Incredible Real Story and A Really Incredible Semi-Real Story

Hello, I’m done with book #15 and book #16 and I’m deeply in love with both of them. I am very late to the Henrietta Lacks party, but #15 was (finally) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. And then I was on time to the party for #16: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. That book is a monster and I feel a little more muscular after carrying it around in my purse for as long as I did. Worth it, though.

So, Henrietta Lacks! I obviously remember all of the buzz around this book when it came out, and I really have no excuse for not reading it. It’s a fascinating and very well-written account of the life of the woman whose cancer cells were taken without permission in the 1950s. These cells went on to become the first that were able to survive (and seemingly thrive) outside of the human body.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells have gone on to help create vaccines and advance science in so many ways, but until this book, the woman from whom the cells came was never really acknowledged properly. Her family remained cruelly in the dark about their mother’s unwitting contributions to science, and this was primarily due to the fact that she was an African American woman.

I am not a science person in the slightest, and while this book did discuss the science behind these cells to some extent, I loved that the primary goal and focus was setting the record straight about Henrietta Lacks. Skloot spent a lot of time interviewing and researching with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and the portrait she is able to paint of the family through these interactions is beautiful and impactful. I highly recommend this book.

And then City on Fire. What a story. This is definitely not a casual weekend read, but I loved it so much. It’s a sprawling, 900-page brick that spans about 40 decades, following around 10 loosely- (but not-so-loosely-, it turns out) connected characters in New York City during this 40 years. I am obsessed with stories like this, and I always have a hard time pinning down the best way to describe them… but it was the type of story that shifts character-perspectives from chapter to chapter, so you get all these details about each character’s life, then after a while you start looking for the other characters in each character’s narratives because you know there has to be something that will ultimately bring them together…

So yeah, hard to pin down. Although I just used the word “character” four times in one sentence, so it’s probably safe to say it’s very much a character-driven story.

Anyway, the book kind of revolves around a shooting in Central Park on the eve of 1977; the victim is a girl named Sam, and through hazy revelations and a lot of time-shifts, this shooting is revealed to be connected to something much larger and more sinister. The other central event in the story is the (apparently real) blackout that occurred in New York City in July ’77, when the whole city lost power for the night and erupted in riots and violence.

But that doesn’t even begin to sum up what this book is really about, because there are so many elements. Family, trust, relationships, greed, coming-of-age, redemption, vanity… and a million other things. I loved it, and if you’re in the mood to get lost in a story that seems never-ending in the best way, I highly recommend it.

I especially loved it because of the huge role New York City played in the story. It takes place over the course of the 1960s into the early 2000s, but I was especially fascinated by the portrayal of the city in the 70’s, if only because it’s so drastically different from how I’ve experienced the city. It was a dark period that I was previously unfamiliar with. Reading about all of that tension and darkness while traveling around the same city, forty years later and recognizable only by the street names, was a pretty cool experience.

But even if you’re unfamiliar with the city, you should read this book. ◊

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