Bad Blood by John Carryrou: It only took listening to the first episode of Rebecca Jarvis’s compelling podcast The Dropout, a story about the famed biotech billionaire, Elizabeth Holmes, and the fall of her company Theranos, to make me run out and get Carryrou’s book. For those who are familiar with the Greek saga (trust me, it’s got all the elements of a Greek play, so much so, the film version is in the works starring Jennifer Lawrence as the sociopathic CEO), Carreyrou broke a series of articles in the WSJ doubting the efficacy of The Edison, a Theranos product that purported to provide up to 200 blood tests using 1-2 drops of blood, pricked from your finger. This technology, if it would’ve have worked, would have revolutionized healthcare, making blood tests more accessible and convenient, and people would have to rely on needle draws.
However, as one of my skeptics have said–a good idea is a dime a dozen. There’s a reason science Nobel winners get prizes in their 60s-90s–they’ve been doing this for a while. Biology and chemistry are complicated–especially when you try to combine them with new technology.
Carreyrou’s book is a sensational read–giving you all the drama, science, and suspense of a fast-paced thriller. There’s Elizabeth’s childhood, mired in financial legacy and an obsession with money and prestige. There’s the world’s desire to see past reality so much so that they’ll believe anything, the suicide of a prominent scientist, the fissures of familial relationships, the corporate lies, intimidation, and intrigue, and SO MUCH MORE. I’m grateful that Holmes is facing prison for her reckless pursuit of power at the expense of real people who made real decisions based on the faulty results of her 5th-grade science experiments. I absolutely recommend this book. BUY IT.
The Sylvia Plath Letters Vol 2: Anyone who’s taking an English class knows about Sylvia Plath. Possibly, they know more about her brief life than the astonishing volume of poems completed in the remaining months of her life. Her biography has experienced sixty years of vivisection. There was the rise of the pretty, ambitious and promising poet who won all the prizes and accolades but could never shake the untimely death of her father–a gruff, Aryan figure that spent his life fixated on bees. There are the years at Cambridge as an American riding around on a red bicycle, but striding ahead of her peers academically. There’s the chance reading of Edward (Ted) Hughes’s poem in a college lit journal and the launched party that set the dramatic tale into motion. The mythology of the union of two great poets, in an era where a woman’s sole role was that of being barefoot and in the kitchen, has been the stuff of movies and hordes of books.
For years, all of Plath’s work, as well as her brand, was managed with an iron hand by the Hughes estate. Two renowned Plath scholars, aided by Freada Hughes, were able to offer two volumes of un-edited letters from Plath. These are the Instagram-level tom-foolery of Aurelia Plath’s Letters Home. I’ve read every single book written by and about Plath and Hughes and this two-volume set is the real deal. Exhaustive annotations give the letters context, so you can read the true voice of a poet constrained by society’s expectations, hatred for her mother, the suffocating, yet the symbiotic relationship with Hughes, and her mental illness–made that much more prominent after Hughes’s infidelity and abandonment. Plath is the epitome of control and discipline. I admired her fastidious management of the couples’ money and the publishing pursuits. She was wry, funny, often an asshole, but in so much pain. The pain is palpable in the final few letters she sends off in her final weeks and the depression that surfaces so prominently and acutely. Plath fans will be satisfied with the two volumes. I felt as if I came away with an even more nuanced perspective of the young poet.
Evening in Paradise (More Stories) and A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin: Have you ever started a book loving it–feeling the author and her wild, imaginative style of writing–and then slowly feeling nothing but disgust for the author hiding behind the style that soon feels deliberate. Recently, I started (and couldn’t finish) The Chronology of Water, and it’s rare that you’ll find me judge the subject of a memoir, but Lidia Y.’s behavior was so reckless and repugnant without consideration of the wrecked lives she left in her wake–even after the passage of time. How do you drive and drive and then hit a pregnant woman, and, in writing about it years later still manage to make it about you? Every bold-faced writer adores Lidia Y. Her book’s being made into a film. She’s happy, tra la la, but the mark of a great memoir is the symphony between the work and how the work is presented. The structure and style fall apart in the middle of the book, and the character becomes increasingly abhorrent, having learned nothing. Having gained no perspective. She’s an alcoholic sex addict, but she’s suddenly cured by the right man and a baby. Delivering a neat and tidy ending. Um, ok.
Listen, I’m all about unlikeable characters–I write them–but they’re humanized and not subsumed by their own narcissism. I’m writing this long intro about a book I hated because I’d read a review that compared aspects of Lidia’s memoir to the late, great Lucia Berlin. Both women have written about addiction, sex, and bad decisions, but Berlin manages to create a work of art and grace and Lidia…well, she’s getting a movie deal I guess?
Anyway. Lucia Berlin’s books are astonishing on the level of Joan Didion and Didion fans know that is a bold statement. There’s something about Berlin’s smooth, cool style in the way that she recounts the tragedies and horrors of her life and translates them loosely into fictionalized stories. Both story collections spam Chile, the Bay Area, Mexico, New York, and the American Southwest with characters that are addicts, struggling mothers, bad Christians, and socialites. An alcoholic mother who gets the shakes at 7am practically crawls to the liquor store because her children have hidden her car keys will one day get sober. A woman drops everything in California and boards a plane for Mexico to care for her sister, her childhood nemesis, who’s dying of cancer. A cleaning woman discovers that her boss is dead and wonders who amongst his loved ones is the murderer. An American growing up in Chilean high society glimpses the revolution through the eyes of her rebellious teacher and is seduced by her father’s friend. Two small children go door-to-door with a scam game that feels a little Bernie Madoff and discovers the price of making money. A woman with a young boyfriend and small children ventures out for an overnight affair to come home and discover that one of her children had gone missing, state troopers were called, and the whole town is in a frenzy. The now-sober woman travels to meet up with a professor with whom she’s developed a relationship via correspondence and realizes the whole trip was an epic mistake.
To say that you feel like a voyeur peering into the raw and intimate lives of Berlin’s characters is an understatement. She manages to find humor in even the darkest moments and recount horrific decisions with style, grace, and perspective. You’ll love her stories because the landscape is rich and is its own character. Her voice guides you through the landscapes as you navigate the complexities of these women’s lives.
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