Unlocked: Faith in Fiction

Karen Kingsbury specializes in life-changing fiction. She is known as America’s favorite inspirational novelist. I’ve been seeing her books in different bookshops and every time I pass by them my reader conscience nags me to pick up one. Giving in to my fiction weakness, I decided to enter into the world of Holden Harris in “Unlocked”.

Locked in his own world

Holden Harris was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old. He spent the next 15 years of his life locked in a world that only he could understand. Holden went to a high school that offered classes for students with special needs. With his noticeable quirks and odd movements, it was no surprise that Holden was a common victim of bullying. This did not stop him from going to school and trying to live his “normal” life.

Holden’s condition took a toll on his parents’ marriage as well. His dad had to spend months away from them—fishing—so he could provide for his therapy and other needs. His mom spent each day hoping that at some point, in the midst of his routine he would make eye contact or reconnect with her in some miraculous way. Little did they know that a miracle was about to happen.

The key

During the rehearsal of their high school play “Beauty and the Beast”, Holden stopped and listened to the music. His classmates went ahead of him while he stayed at the entrance of the theatre mesmerized by the song. Lead actress and head cheerleader Lauren Reynolds noticed him and saw how Holden was connecting to the music. In good faith, she asked his teacher to allow him to watch their rehearsal but she didn’t tell her that she felt unexplainably drawn to him. Days went by and Holden started to show more response to Lauren. Her mom even saw significant improvements in his behavior.

As Lauren knew more about Holden, she also knew more about herself. One day as she was rummaging through some stuff she saw a scrapbook of their family. In there she saw a boy who looked very familiar—Holden. They had pictures playing, laughing, and having a great time with their family. This was the time before Holden had autism. She eventually found out that her parents were best friends with Holden’s. Sadly, his condition severed the ties between their families.

Breakthrough after breakthrough happened as Holden got more immersed in the play. The music and his friendship with Lauren unlocked him from the world that took him away from his family. It was Holden’s sickness that created a chasm between his parents and Lauren’s; but it was also his condition that moved them to bridge the silence and indifference they built over the years.

Faith in fiction

Seeing the world through Holden’s eyes was seeing faith in a whole different level. Holden would pray for almost everyone even those who bullied him. He saw the good in people. He didn’t judge them. He had pure childlike faith that nobody saw. Seeing his mom’s faith moved me to tears. Being a mom myself, I couldn’t imagine losing that connection with my son. Holden’s mom patiently waited and hoped that one day God would bring Holden back—the son she could hug and talk to without fearing that he might move back or pull away. Lauren’s faith in Holden was unwavering. She believed in him when everybody else doubted him. She saw light coming from Holden’s locked world and knew that there was so much more to discover inside of it.

Now I know why Karen Kingsbury is America’s favorite inspirational author. She creates stories that uplift the spirit of her readers. She is not talking religion but reality. She shows that despite the frailty of the human spirit, it still triumphs in the midst of difficulty. I haven’t felt refreshed in a long while after reading a novel. “Unlocked” gave me that experience again. Reading faith in fiction is like bathing in renewed hope and wanting to stay there for a long time. 🙂

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Murakami, We Meet Again

I think Haruki Murakami and I got off on the wrong foot when I read him for the first time. I thought that there was nothing spectacular about the debut Murakami novel I read. Some of my friends like his writing and even encouraged me to try his other novels. Well I guess writing is a hit-and-miss process. Your debut novel may reach number one in the New York Times’ bestsellers list but that doesn’t guarantee that your next book will be received the same way. Consistency is probably difficult to achieve for any writer.

I decided to give Murakami another try by reading his nearly 1,000-page novel “1Q84”. It consists of three parts; each was a separate book released in Japan. When it was translated to English in 2011, the three novels were put together in one hefty book. When I started reading it I wasn’t sure if Murakami’s intent was to create a sci-fi novel or simply integrate Magic Realism in the story. As the story progressed I realized that he was trying to create a very ambitious and complex love story, transcending all norms and realities.

Two Lives

The novel was told in the point of view of the main characters—Tengo and Aomame. In the last part of the book, a third point of view was introduced in the person of Ushikawa. Tengo taught math in a prep school. He also screened novels for an award-giving body while trying to write his own masterpiece. Aomame, on the other hand, was a fitness instructor and physical therapist, working with high-profile clients. They both looked like seemingly ordinary professionals but each of them had covert jobs on the side.

Each chapter was told alternately in Tengo and Aomame’s voice. The first chapter began with Aomame being stuck in a cab in the middle of heavy traffic. The driver told her to take the staircase behind one of the billboards in the expressway so she could get pass the road congestion. Soon after, she reached the hotel where she was scheduled to kill a man. Aomame was a hired assassin, killing men who brutally abused women. She worked for a Dowager who kept a safe house for abused women. After the first incident, Aomame started to notice things that were different from what she used to see. She noticed that the policemen had different uniforms and guns whereas she distinctly remembered that it was never changed. She researched certain events and read some that she never heard of but were apparently big news. At this point, she started to speculate that she might be in a parallel universe. She was certain that it was not the 1984 she knew she was in. To temporarily reconcile these events, she called that year 1Q84—Q for question mark—because she was not sure what year she was in. There was also one major difference in her world and this world—1Q84 had two moons.

Meanwhile, Tengo was commissioned to rewrite a novel that was submitted to their screening committee. When Tengo first read the “Air Chrysalis” he was immediately captivated by its story despite its horrific grammar and style. The novel was about the sinister “little people” making air chrysalis with another version of you.

There was something powerful about the story that he actually lobbied for it to receive the literary prize. That of course was not possible because of the pathetic prose of the 17-year-old author Fuka-Eri. Thus, Tengo was offered by his editor Komatsu to “ghost” rewrite it. Much to his surprise, Fuka-Eri gave him all the leeway he needed to improve the story.  Then, they submitted it to a publishing company who immediately agreed to distribute the novel from this new literary sensation Fuka-Eri. However, a scam like this would never go unnoticed. Things began to become complicated as the success of the book reached its peak. In the midst of all these, Tengo also started to notice something strikingly different in his world—it had two moons.

Where Two Roads Meet

As you read along “1Q84”, you will be taken to the parallel lives of these two characters, wondering what’s their connection to each other and when will they ever meet. At some point in the novel, Tengo and Aomame’s worlds gravitate toward each other. Tengo discovered that Fuka-Eri escaped from a cult community called Sakigake. She was also dyslexic and she didn’t actually write the novel. She dictated it to her guardian’s daughter. Fuka-Eri’s father was close to her guardian Professor Ebisuno and ever since her father established that commune Ebisuno didn’t hear from her father anymore until the day Fuka-Eri appeared at his doorstep. The professor used the publication of the book to stir the hornet’s nest and allow the media to investigate on the literary prodigy’s family, which would inevitably lead him to the whereabouts of Fuka-Eri’s parents. The Sakigake found out about “Air Chrysalis” and was bothered by the truth in that novel. Fuka-Eri also admitted to Tengo that the “little people” were real.

On the other hand, Aomame was commissioned to kill the leader of the Sakigake group who was responsible for the rape and abuse of the newest addition to the Dowager’s safe house—a 10-year-old girl named Tsubasa. When Aomame met the leader who was supposed to be scheduled for a physical therapy session, she found out that he knew that she was there to kill him. He had the power of telekinesis and most of all he was the mouthpiece of the “little people”. They had placed him in so much pain and he wanted to die. Aomame thought that leaving him alive to suffer would be much better than killing him but the leader negotiated that in exchange for her going on as planned, he would protect the man she loved the most, Tengo. Aomame was surprised that he knew about him. Aomame had loved Tengo since the time she tightly held his hand in a classroom. They were classmates 20 years ago. That encounter left an indelible mark in her heart and Tengo’s. Neither forgot that incident—that lasting innocent expression of love in holding each other’s hands. Fearing for Tengo’s life, Aomame proceeded to kill the leader despite the implied retaliation of the “little people”.

The plot thickened as the Sakigake hired a cunning investigator named Ushikawa. His misshapen head and repulsive looks were part of his entire ensemble. He was a master of deductive reasoning which made him more valuable than other investigators. Ushikawa stalked Tengo to find out more about “Air Chrysalis”. He was also tasked to find where the leader’s assassin was. When he found out that Tengo and Aomame were classmates, he used Tengo as his primary lead to find Aomame. Both of them knew that they were in danger. They were both looking for each other, wanting to save each other. The novel ended with Tengo and Aomame finding each other in the world with two moons and finding their way to their own world where 1Q84 exists no more.

Love it or Hate it

Appreciation for “1Q84” can go both ways—you either love it or hate it. The thing I like most about this novel is the character development of Tengo and Aomame. They grew on me like good friends whom I wanted to help. Their lives were rich with back stories and inner conflicts that demand resolution. The thing I didn’t like about it is the fact that there were so many loose ends in the story. I want to know more about the little people, air chrysalis, Sakigake, and even the annoying NHK cable collector who appears repeatedly in the novel. I wished Murakami didn’t end it the way he did, it was too easy after making the search too difficult. There were unnecessary portions that were irrelevant to the story in my opinion. I think it would’ve been better if it was also released here by parts because each part is independently unique and compelling. Reading the entire three books in one go can be really tiring and dragging. However, I must say that this might be the Murakami that my friends love and rave about. His distinct style and raw voice merged with this pseudo-fantasy and quasi-cult story resulted in a literary epic that only Haruki Murakami can deliver.

One Woman’s Immortal Legacy

When I first saw “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in the New York Times’ bestsellers list, two things came to mind. First, the title was too long and second, it’s very intriguing. What’s more interesting was that the book was categorized under the non-fiction list. So it’s actually talking about some “immortal” contribution this woman made to society. I never heard of Henrietta Lacks in any of my history classes nor had I ever Googled her name. So with much curiosity and a bit of scepticism combined, I decided to read Henrietta Lacks’ immortal life.

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Who is Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks lived during the 1950’s in Baltimore, Maryland. She was a loving wife and a doting mother to five children. Apart from her family duties, she worked tirelessly as a tobacco farmer. She had walnut eyes and a pleasant face with a lovely smile. She loved music and she always painted her nails deep red. Her family and relatives described her as someone who took care of everyone. Aside from watching over her own children, she would also look after her cousins’ kids. She was fondly remembered as the aunt who always gave. She grew up with a Baptist background and was esteemed by the people in that community.

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At the age of 30, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer. At a time when medicine was at its early stages, the only treatment for cancer was radiation. Henrietta was treated at Johns Hopkins—the only hospital in Baltimore that treated black people. She underwent multiple radiation treatments that made her colored skin even blacker. Her cancer was very aggressive and spread rapidly which inevitably caused her death. When her body was opened for autopsy it was like someone filled her with huge pearls—big tumors literally covered all her organs. Her cousin Sadie said that despite her sickness Henrietta’s looks didn’t change. She still looked beautiful though her eyes showed that life was slowly being drawn out of her. The Lacks family grieved when she died but the world of science rejoiced in what she left behind.

The immortal cells

Before Henrietta died doctors took a sample of her cancer cells without her permission. Her cells were given to Dr. George Gey who was trying to grow cells in culture. All the cells previously cultured died until they got Henrietta’s. Not only did her cells live it also grew continuously. In fact, it still multiplies up to now! It was probably the first modern miracle that scientists ever witnessed. In fact, I think it should be called the first “living” miracle. This discovery was one of the major breakthroughs in the field of medicine. Gey called this the HeLa cells, combining the first two letter of Henrietta’s full name. Since it couldn’t die, scientists were able to monitor the different stages of cell development and administer tests on each stage. The HeLa cells were instrumental in the development of the Polio vaccine. It was even sent outer space to see how her cells would react in zero gravity. HeLa cells also contributed to the advancement of gene mapping, cloning, and vitro fertilization. Below is a photo of HeLa cells’ remarkable contribution to the field of science.

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What went wrong?

Henrietta’s family had no clue that a part of her was taken and being used by scientists all over the world. Consent forms were unheard of at that time. The HeLa cells were the first human biological specimen that were sold and bought. While the field of medicine was making leaps and bounds in their discoveries through the HeLa cell line, the Lacks family remained where they were—poor and unable to get a health insurance. They couldn’t even determine the exact location of Henrietta’s grave which remained unmarked for the longest time. Twenty-five years after Henrietta’s cells were taken from her, a pervasive contamination in cultured cells spread like wildfire. Apparently, HeLa cells can be transferred through hands and other airborne particles. For example, just when they thought they’ve grown prostate cells scientists discovered that they were taken over by HeLa cells. This prodded them to track Henrietta’s family to get their DNA so they can map her cells and distinguish it among the other cultured cells.

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This was the first time that Henrietta’s family learned about her immortal cells. The family agreed to be tested, thinking that they were being checked for cancer. They didn’t understand quite well all the complex DNA mapping that was being explained to them. Eventually, they discovered that HeLa cells were being bought and this infuriated Henrietta’s sons. They tried to get what was due them but failed in the process. Their efforts consumed the family in a debilitating way. This even caused her youngest daughter Deborah to breakdown, knowing that a part of her mom was alive somewhere and was being experimented on. Deborah was still an infant when Henrietta died. She was born four months before her mother was diagnosed with cancer. With the family placed in the middle of research hoopla, inquiries knocked on the Lacks’ doorstep which consequently traumatized the family.

More than just the cells

Author Rebecca Skloot first heard of HeLa cells in her biology class. However, the only information her teacher gave aside from Henrietta’s name was that she’s black. This roused the curiosity of Rebecca who later on took the road less travelled of finding the Lacks family to learn more about the woman behind the immortal cells. The Lacks family already had the notion that doctors and reporters were out to take advantage of them when Rebecca entered the picture. It took her a decade to win the trust of the Lacks family. She had to convince them of her sincere and pure intentions to tell the story of Henrietta as a woman, wife, and mother. It was about her brave albeit brief life. Rebecca wanted to give a face to the cells that ushered one scientific breakthrough after another. Her perseverance and integrity finally broke the walls that the Lacks family had built over the years.

Partnering with Deborah, Rebecca started her research on the remarkable woman that is Henrietta. Together they discovered who she was and for Deborah it made up for the many years of wondering what her mother was like. One doctor even gave a framed picture of Henrietta’s cells to Deborah and her family. It was dyed with different colors to show the different parts of her cell. This was a pivotal moment in the lives of Deborah and her brother Zakariyya who both yearned for their mother for the longest time.

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The author

As I was reading this book, my admiration for Rebecca Skloot grew more and more. Pursuing a story out of some random remark from your teacher took a lot of courage and tenacity. In the decade-long process of writing the book, Rebecca faced many hurdles. Gaining the trust of the Lacks’ family was one thing, keeping it was another. Her work with Deborah was like walking on a tight rope. She would sometimes bail out on her then call her again after so many days. She got married while writing the book and got divorced while still writing the book. None of these things stopped Rebecca from finishing what she started. She knew that this story was worth telling. She wrote with clarity and power. Her engaging narrative resulted in a powerful biography filled with poignant moments, ethical controversies, and disturbing revelations in the field of medicine.

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Aside from immortalizing the life of Henrietta, Rebecca also donates a portion of her book’s earnings to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation—a non-profit organization she also started. The foundation provides education and medical support to the immediate family of Henrietta. It also gives grants to families who have relatives that contributed to the field of science but didn’t receive any recognition. This book redeemed the life of Henrietta and her family. It gave them a new beginning. Memorial markers were placed in honor of Henrietta and the future of her grandchildren and great grandchildren was secured.

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Before Henrietta died Dr. Gey told her, “Your cells will make you immortal.” He added that it will save the lives of people. Henrietta smiled and told him that she was glad that her pain would be of good use to someone. Knowing that a part of her will live on forever for the benefit of others probably comforted Henrietta. This book took me through a roller coaster of emotions. It also stirred something in my heart—a sense of gratitude toward Henrietta and awe to the God who used her life to bring about immortal cells.

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