BOOK REVIEW: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

 
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What is there to say about Lauren Groff that hasn’t already been said? She’s a phenom, a master, one of Barack Obama’s favourite authors. From my compulsive consumption of book-related podcasts I’ve also learned that she’s undeniably likeable. Her prose will pierce through the fog of your everyday life and make you feel more than mildly inadequate about your own writing abilities, but her stories will wrap you up and captivate you in a way that few things in life can.

If you couldn’t already tell, I’m a pretty big fan.

For me, 2019 is the year of Lauren Groff. I’ in the midst of an effort to read all of her books, and, having completed The Monsters of Templeton, am now more than halfway through. Her most recent book, a short story collection called Florida, and her bestselling novel Fates & Furies have been two of my favourite books of the year. Both books revolve around characters so intricately woven they felt completely real. Groff’s specialty is in writing about inherently flawed but intensely relatable people, and The Monsters of Templeton is full of them.

The Monsters of Templeton is a novel about Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, New York, a place with a bizarre and intriguing history. In a brief introductory chapter, Groff says, “My Templeton is to Cooperstown as a shadow is to the tree that spawned it; an outline that takes texture from the ground it falls on.” While it features aspects of fantasy, history and drama, The Monsters of Templeton is ultimately a character study of a town and its unique inhabitants, and in many ways reads like a love story to the place Groff grew up.

Wilhemina “Willie” Upton arrives in her hometown heartbroken after the decline of an already-precarious romantic relationship. Uncertain about her future and the status of her yet-to-be-completed Ph.D. she moves back in with her eccentric mother and becomes reabsorbed in the strange flow of life in Templeton, New York. Coinciding with her reappearance is the discovery of a dead monster that’s evidently been living in the town’s lake for centuries. In an attempt to distract herself from the downfalls of her current existence, Willie decides to spend the summer researching her ancestors – the very men and women who famously founded Templeton – and hopes to discover her father’s identity along the way. What unfolds is a story of magic, mystery, and absolute mayhem told from the perspectives of the interesting and utterly absurd relatives Willie is learning about. 

“A man living in a place that doesn’t change doesn’t expect it ever will.”
— Lauren Groff, The Monsters of Templeton

The Monsters of Templeton is a novel about family and the feeling of coming home. Over the course of the summer, Willie struggles between being drawn back to her university life – where she feels free of the scrutiny she faces in Templeton – and her genuine love for her hometown. Templeton is geographically beautiful, but the people of the town – including a quirky librarian, a group of middle-aged joggers, and Willie’s own peculiar mother – at times make it an uncomfortable place to live, particularly for an ambitious young woman.

 In the end The Monsters of Templeton is, like everything Groff does, an incredibly complex and spellbinding story, and one would probably have failed if not for its authors’ talent and abilities. It’s a perfect summer read for anyone looking to branch out from their normal genres. It will make you think a little harder about how the place you come from has shaped you into who you are.

BOOK REVIEW: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A poor, black Southern tobacco farmer shows up at a hospital with an aggressive form of cervical cancer in the 1950s. A biopsy of cells is taken from her cervix. Today, well over half a century later, those cells are still alive and replicating, and have becomes one of the most important scientific discoveries in history. Replicas of those cells have been used to study polio, in vitro fertilization, cloning, gene mapping and more, and have contributed to some of the most ground-breaking biological studies ever done. The woman those cells came from died, and for many decades her life passed into obscurity, almost forgotten by all those but her immediate family. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she may have been entirely forgotten had it not been for the dedication of her daughter and a very determined journalist.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is – and I say this with little knowledge on the subject – one of the greatest science books of all time. You may be wondering how I, a self-described science ignoramus, could possibly be qualified to classify any book as “one of the greatest science books of all time.” But it’s may status as a non-sciency person that makes my opinion so important, because it shows that this book was able to reach across a void of knowledge, education and understanding and pull me into the complex and ever-changing world of scientific discovery. In a time when vaccines and climate change are being widely questioned by the general public, it is even more important that journalists find ways to bridge the gap between people with deep, scientific knowledge of health and the natural world and those of us who don’t share that same knowledge.

Many journalists dream of coming across a story like the one Rebecca Skloot tells in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s got all of the components of an incredible piece of journalism: compelling characters, timeliness, data. Most importantly, no one had ever told the whole story before. But what becomes clear over the course of the almost 300-age non-fiction book is that the story of Henrietta Lacks hadn’t been completely unknown until Skloot came along. In fact, many people had known who Henrietta was, and instead of shining a light on her life and contribution to science, they swept her identity and history under the rug.

Henrietta Lacks, as a poor black woman, was largely erased from history. The scientists and doctors and researchers who benefitted so greatly from her cells almost never acknowledged where they came from. Many people profited financially from Henrietta’s cells, and yet her family, who have dealt with an array of multi-generational problems like poverty, racism and health problems, never saw any of those benefits themselves. Henrietta’s story raises ethical and philosophical and moral questions that linger today. Rebecca Skloot does a magnificent job of laying out not only the dilemmas Henrietta’s story so starkly exposes, but also the humanity at the core of the problems.

The relationship Skloot forms with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, grounds the story, drawing the reader in and keeping them focused even throughout lengthy explanations of cell replication and other biological phenomena (which are incredibly interesting, detailed and pertinent to the story). The pair are working towards a common goal, but often finds themselves at odds because of their vastly different backgrounds and motivations.

The real triumph of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is that it serves as reminder that behind every scientific or medical discovery is a person - or a number of people - who had to endure hardship and suffering. Skloot has finally given Henrietta Lacks and her family the credit and recognition, and most importantly the understanding of their loved ones’ experience they so deserve.