The Aviator’s Wife

The Aviator's WifeThe Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. After a somewhat slow start that had me shelve the book for awhile, when I came back to it I found the story quite fascinating. Is this the authentic voice of Anne Morrow Lindbergh? No. But I’ll judge the book as fiction, not as a biography. It presents a very believable account of a shy and insecure girl who can’t quite believe that Charles Lindbergh, America’s hero, has chosen her to be his wife. At the same time, she is a remarkable woman in her own right, but it takes years for her to find her voice and truly be her own person, not “The Aviator’s Wife.” In a way, her journey represents the journey of all women through the 20th century – from the submissive wife of the 30s, to the independent woman of the war years, to the idealized (but unfulfilled) housewife of the 50s, to the increasing desires of women in the 60s and 70s to exert their independence and their sexuality and “have it all.” I wish the book had continued with Anne’s life after the death of Charles. I think it also underplayed how much she did write – not just Gift From the Sea. Finally, I think the success of this book is evident in the desire of readers to learn more about the “real” Lindberghs after reading this novel.

Book description: For much of her life, Anne Morrow, the shy daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has stood in the shadows of those around her, including her millionaire father and vibrant older sister, who often steals the spotlight. Then Anne, a college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family. There she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the celebrated aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong. Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. Hounded by adoring crowds and hunted by an insatiable press, Charles shields himself and his new bride from prying eyes, leaving Anne to feel her life falling back into the shadows. In the years that follow, despite her own major achievements-she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States-Anne is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.

Loving Frank

Loving FrankLoving Frank by Nancy Horan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Possible spoiler alert! I knew the basic outline of the story of Frank and Mamah going into it, so I dreaded getting to the end of it. Nancy Horan created a very sympathetic portrayal of Mamah – and I really wanted them to have more time together. Probably Frank’s ego and narcissism would have meant that he eventually would have cheated on her. And if Mamah had grown enough to leave him, perhaps she would have gone on to an illustrious career. As it was, these two kindred spirits had a kind of co-dependent relationship that both helped and hindered their individual lives. I think Nancy Horan did a marvelous job with the historical information available to her of staying true to the characters and the time period, and yet getting inside their heads in a very believable way. There were a few gaps in the story where the narrative either glossed over large chunks of time or could have been fleshed out with more details, but I think Ms. Horan wanted to avoid making up anything that wasn’t supported by her research. As it was, she worked an enormous amount of detail into the story, surrounding it with a very elegant style of prose that beautifully evoked the time period, and flowed in a very readable manner. I could have wished for a list of her sources or suggestions for further reading at the end of the book.

Having also listened to T.C. Boyle’s “The Women”, it probably enhanced my understanding of how strongly Frank and Mamah were bound to each other, and how her death affected the rest of his life. Whatever good qualities had drawn her to him died with her and left a hole that he could never fill.

Book Description (from Amazon.com)
“I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.” So writes Mamah Borthwick Cheney in her diary as she struggles to justify her clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Four years earlier, in 1903, Mamah and her husband, Edwin, had commissioned the renowned architect to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives. In this ambitious debut novel, fact and fiction blend together brilliantly. While scholars have largely relegated Mamah to a footnote in the life of America’s greatest architect, author Nancy Horan gives full weight to their dramatic love story and illuminates Cheney’s profound influence on Wright.

I listened to the audio version narrated by Joyce Bean.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great story, lots of human interest, and well told. So much more than just science – you will care about these people.

Book description:
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable CreaturesRemarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The “remarkable creatures” here could refer to the first discoveries in the early 19th century, of the fossil remains of extinct creatures, the Ichthyosaur and the Plesiosaur, which set the scientific and religious communities on their ears. Or it could refer to the two remarkable women, whose friendship helped them to thrive and survive in an age when women had no public voice and no recognition beyond motherhood. As Jane Austen so ably depicted, unmarried women, particularly in the upper classes, were a burden to their families. At least lower class women could become servants, laundresses, etc. and eke out a living. 10-year-old Mary Anning, the daughter of a poor cabinet maker and amateur fossil collector, helps to support her family by scouring the beaches and cliffs of Lyme Regis for “curies” which are sold in the family shop. Elizabeth Philpot, at age 30 and still unmarried, has been settled in Lyme Regis by her brother who cannot afford her upkeep in London. In that out of the way location, Elizabeth is able to pursue an interest in science and fossils. Because of her class, she is not really free to hunt for fossils on her own, but relies on Mary to find them for her. I loved how the two women learned and grew through each other. Elizabeth is envious of Mary’s “freedom”, while Mary is constrained by poverty. Elizabeth has the connections to bring Mary’s discoveries to the world, but she needs a bit of Mary’s boldness to step outside of the constraints of being a woman in a man’s world. It is remarkable that Mary Anning’s name is still remembered at all. I also loved learning about the early days of fossil hunting and seeing how these discoveries forced people to reassess the world and their place in the scheme of things, a reassessment that paved the way for Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution.

The story is told in alternating points of view by each woman. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by two different women. This really helped to bring out the cultural differences between the two women, and made me feel as if I were “there” hearing about the events and relationships through their eyes.

Description: On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, poor and uneducated Mary Anning learns that she has a unique gift: “the eye” to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. After enduring bitter cold, thunderstorms, and landslips, her challenges only grow when she falls in love with an impossible man. Mary soon finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who shares her passion for scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy, but ultimately turns out to be their greatest asset.