The Canterbury Trail

By Angie Abdou

With a wink to Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, Angie Abdou assembles her own group of diverse personalities and sends them on a pilgrimage. She mixes up a batch of locals, foreigners, ski-bums, red-necks, hippies and urbanites and takes them trekking up a mountain one beautiful spring weekend for a last taste of powder. They ski, snowshoe and snowmobile their way up to “Camelot” the local ski cabin. Each group is unaware of the others and is somewhat dismayed to find that they must share the space. But they all make the best of it, and with more than a bit of booze and pot to help mellow out some of the conflicts, there is much ribald fun.

This is not a plot-driven story, although there is a definite agenda: climb the mountain and conquer the slopes; enjoy. This is a study in characters, and as we meet each one, we learn a bit about their personality and their reasons for participating in this venture. In time we get to see more than what appears on the surface, and although we might not always like what we see, we gain some insights and come to care about what happens to them.

Obviously, combining such disparate types could lead to conflict and tension, and it does. But there is also a lot of comedy, and some scenes made me laugh out loud, tears rolling down my cheeks. After an evening of indulgence, Alison (urbanite journalist) is horribly sick the next morning, and when she throws up from the upstairs bedroom window, it is so vivid, you can almost smell it. Then Lanny (the miller) having spent the night outside, wakes up from the noise and the odour hits him so hard that he makes a snowball to suck and hold under his nose, so that he doesn’t succumb. Amusing as this scene is, it also helps solidify the characters. We’ve all been there. We can immediately identify with these people so they seem more real to us, and we like them a bit more. This is just one of many examples that illustrate Abdou’s talent for making her characters come to life.

There is humour in various forms throughout the book and in general the tone is fairly casual and low-key. Some of the characters have serious issues to deal with, but the book itself feels quite light-hearted overall. Like most of us, they lead their lives in a fairly trusting way. Then, with a whumpf we are reminded that nature has its own rhythm, and if we are caught in it, it is terrifying, implacable, inexorable…final.

With The Bone Cage, Abdou showed us her talent for plunging us into the heart of the story from the very first sentence. She does the same here, and also delights us with her humour. But with her ending we see an entirely new side to her writing. She lulls us into a fun adventure, then hits us hard. In a last moving, powerful section, Abdou takes us “…somewhere beyond words.” All we can do is sit back and admire.

Pandora's Bottle

By Joanne Lessner

Sy Hampton’s bid of half a million dollars at a wine auction wins him a bottle of wine. Yes, one bottle, but what a bottle it is. This is a Bordeaux, a Chateau Lafite 1787 once owned by Thomas Jefferson, and possibly still drinkable after more than 200 years. The winemaker at that time had experimented with the best barrel of the exceptional 1787 vintage, using extended maceration for 40 days and adding a secret ingredient. “La chose secrète” was still a mystery. No one knew what he had added, but it was supposed to preserve the wine and keep it drinkable for far longer than usual. Only the owner of the wine will be able to find out if it actually worked.

Once Sy acquires the wine he'd been coveting, he has to decide what to do with it. Drink it now, keep it, drink it by himself, open it up with other wine-lovers, or share it with a special someone? Sy opts for the latter, and invites a beautiful young woman to share the excitement of opening the bottle, with expectations of a wonderful evening together, enjoying something truly special. Hopes are high. And when he finally opens the bottle, he does not seem disappointed:

Sy lifted the bottle to his nose and breathed. The luscious aroma of earth, chocolate, fruit, and smoke was dizzying. Sheer, unadulterated desire overtook him, and his entire body grew weak.

The inspiration for Lessner’s tale came from an event that took place at The Four Seasons restaurant in 1989. New York wine merchant William Sokolin had been commissioned by a British wine firm to sell a Chateau Margaux 1787, etched with Thomas Jefferson’s initials, who was well known for his love of Bordeaux. Sokolin was hoping for $500,000 for the bottle but had had no cash offers to date. In showing it off to the other wine-lovers that evening, somehow the bottle was broken. Although the bottle did not shatter, it was punctured in two places. Wine flowed out and Sokolin fled, mortified.

Lessner takes this incident and runs with it, embellishing and exaggerating, then adding a diverse cast of characters, to produce a delightful romp. Take a few middle-aged oenophiles, a young woman with the seductive name of Valentina D’Ambrosio, a waiter/dancer named Tripp, an ambitious French-Canadian restaurateur, a young boy named Eric and mix well. Add some mistaken identity, a couple strong Brooklyn accents, and dashes of naivete, romance and suspense to spice things up. Finish with a large helping of humour and enjoy.

This is an entertaining read, but with some serious elements as well. We care about the men and women in this book as they make choices involving love, family, money and ambition. Sy is struggling with a mid-life crisis. The bottle is a kind of metaphor for his life; what will he do now that he has reached this point and realized some of his dreams? Will he remain alone or will he share his life with someone else? The event at the restaurant serves as a catalyst for several other characters to examine their lives and make some changes. These are significant decisions, but it never feels too serious. Everything is handled with a light touch.

Lessner leads us through the novel with ease and verve. She is a talented playwright, actor and singer and has written the lyrics to several musicals with her husband, composer/conductor Josh Rosenblum, including Fermat’s Last Tango and Einstein’s Dreams. Pandora’s Bottle is her first venture in writing a novel. Given how much fun she seemed to have with it, I’m pretty sure she will go for an encore.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

HeLa cells had been used for decades in scientific research, but when Rebecca Skloot first heard of them in high school and wanted to know something about the woman for whom they were named, nobody could answer her questions. Eventually, needing to satisfy her own curiosity and convinced of the importance of this story, Skloot decided to investigate, determined to let the world know about the woman whose cells have helped so many. She has written a moving, thought-provoking book, which deals with ethics in science, racism, poverty, and the importance and strength of family ties. Skloot tells us the story of Henrietta Lacks and how her cells became “immortal” after her death.

Henrietta Lacks was born in Virginia in 1920 and died 31 years later from aggressive cervical cancer. During her short life she bore five children and worked as a tobacco farmer. She ended her days in excruciating pain and was buried in an unmarked grave. We learn about Henrietta’s incredibly hard, impoverished life, through Skloot's research and her contact with the Lacks family. They are wary at first, but she eventually convinces them to talk to her, and Deborah, Mrs. Lacks’ daughter, joins Ms. Skloot in her mission to tell the world about her mother and the story behind the cells that are so familiar to scientists, but unheard of to everyone else.

Lacks was treated for her cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, using a method that today sounds like absolute torture. Doctors there took cells from her cervix without her knowledge or consent, and cultured them. Culturing cells was tried routinely, but the cells always died. This time was different; Henrietta’s cells lived, and not only that, reproduced incredibly. Her cell line became known as HeLa from the first two letters of her first and last names.

Mrs. Lacks died later that year. Her family was not aware that part of her had been removed, that her cells had been cultured, and that they were being used in scientific research. They had no idea that her cells had been so beneficial to important medical and scientific advancements, or that people were profiting from marketing them, until more than 20 years later. They learned about what had happened to Henrietta when scientists asked for blood samples from surviving family members, in order to study the HeLa cells and try to understand why they had become “immortal” when others died.

Skloot does a good job explaining the science involved in the culturing of cells and why they are so incredibly important. She takes us on a journey of discovery that took her ten years to reveal and we are enthralled. But this is not only a book about science and research and history, it is also a story of love and family. Deborah opens up to Skloot because she also wants to know about what happened to her mother. It is her journey of discovery as well. Just a toddler when her mother died, she does not remember her and knows very little about her. She is avid to learn more. Through Skloot’s research and detective skills, Deborah eventually finds out more of her mother’s story. There are many tears along the way (for the reader as well) as we learn about Henrietta’s suffering (the autopsy report is unbelievably brutal to read) but also joy and relief to finally gain some longed-for knowledge about her mother’s life.

There is much to learn from this book. How many people even think about how research is conducted or where the material for the research comes from? How many would realize that so much has been accomplished based solely on this one line of cells? Without Henrietta Lacks’ cells to work with, our knowledge and understanding of many diseases (cancer, polio and AIDS to name a few) would be much further behind.

Some other things we learn are not so pleasant. Many passages are shocking. It becomes clear early on why the family is distrustful of doctors and scientists and wary of reporters. There were many instances in the early 20th century and even into the 1940s, of doctors and scientists using black patients for research and experiments, often allowing patients to die, in order to make observations, rather than treating them. Other “experiments” are cited that are enough to make one angry and ashamed that we as humans, are capable of such atrocities towards one another.

Rebecca Skloot has produced a compelling, intelligent book that gives us a hint of the wonder of science and the excitement of discovery. She raises questions about ethics in scientific and medical research that are still relevant. Henrietta Lacks’ family is left with the knowledge that her cells live on and continue to contribute to medical advancements to this day. A wonderful legacy, but many have profited from research using these cells, and her family still lives in poverty, unable to pay for health insurance or to take advantage of the treatments that her cells helped to develop. Skloot reminds us of the human story behind the science and that even advancements that benefit humanity may have personal consequences as well.