Daily: 5-way organ trade

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Receiving a kidney, Bob Howden tells his buddies, is easier than a sprained ankle.

“What they do is come in from the front near your belly button, drop it in and do some plumbing,” said Howden, 65, of Carlton. “Then you’re good to go.”

While the surgeons at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, might have made his transplant seem easy, the surgery was part of a unique five-transplant trade that took some finagling to make work. Howden had a donor, but his niece, Heather Reinke, wasn’t a match for him. She was, however, a match for a Twin Cities stranger. Meanwhile, John Tracy of St. Paul had offered a kidney to a close family friend. That wasn’t a match, either. Tracy was a match with Howden.

The handful of strangers were part of a chain that ended with five people receiving kidneys from five donors, a cycle that included three hospitals, two states and less than a week of surgical shuffling.

The 10-person mix of donors and recipients didn’t know anything about the other people involved until they met as a group at a luncheon on Tuesday in Minneapolis. They shared stories, contact information and scars (Howden’s is a five-inch incision mark at a 45-degree angle beneath his belly button).

The retired teacher described his donor as a “heckuva nice guy, with a great sense of humor,” a family man, a healthy guy.

And the meeting:

“It was just so powerful,” he said. “You’ve got five people, 10 people, who without you wouldn’t be around as long. It was very nice.”

Howden’s story

Five years ago Friday, Howden received a lung transplant. He said he believes his lung problem was related to being exposed to Agent Orange when he was in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. The anti-rejection medication he was on began to affect his kidneys, and he began dialysis treatment about 16 months before ultimately getting the kidney transplant.

Dialysis, Howden said, begins to feel like a job. His wife, Sandy, would pack him a lunch, and he would spend the entire day at the clinic three days a week. A person can live like that, but he felt his spirits dip, and his quality of life suffered.

Howden got on a transplant list, but that means waiting three to five years for a kidney from a deceased organ donor, said Catherine Garvey, clinical director of the transplant office at Fairview.

Enter Reinke, 37, a nurse, mother of two kids and avid runner who offered up one of her kidneys to her mother’s brother — her last living uncle.

“I thought that this would be easy-breezy,” she said.

“When she first told me, ‘I’ll give you a kidney,’ I said, ‘Like hell you will. You have two beautiful kids,’” Howden said. “I was totally against it. Then she’s such a stubborn little devil. She said, ‘That’s OK. I’m going to give it to someone.’ She’s a runner. I could see the surgeon rubbing his hands together.”

Because of her medical background, Reinke knew the risks, and she also knew that a person can live a normal life with one kidney. She also knew of these exchange programs, and that by agreeing to donate, she was increasing the odds for her uncle to get a transplant more quickly even though they weren’t a match.

“Despite the fact that we’re both Irish, I won out on that battle,” Reinke said. “I’m much more persistent. Once I make up my mind, it usually goes.”

The chain

The plan kicked off with a donation by a Twin Cities woman with no ties to anyone on the transplant list. She was the connector that made the chain possible as each recipient had a donor whose kidney was a match for the next person down the line.

According to a diagram of the transplant chain provided by Fairview, the first donor had her kidney removed at Fairview. The kidney was flown to Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D. A kidney from a donor in Fargo was driven to a recipient at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, whose donor provided a kidney for another patient in the same hospital. That second patient had a donor whose kidney was sent to Fairview. And, finally, Howden received his kidney at the same hospital from John Tracy, who was donating in the name of his wife’s surrogate mother, Pricilla Deshayes.

Tracy said he didn’t wonder too much about the person walking around with his kidney. The 40-year-old database administrator assumed it was a good person, considering they had another person who loved them enough to go through the surgery, too.

“I was so focused on Pricilla, and making sure she didn’t reject her kidney,” he said. “Mentally, I’d given my kidney to Pricilla, even though I didn’t.”

Tracy is back to 100 percent and said Deshayes called him the other day and sounded like her old self: a character.

Reinke tried running three weeks after the surgery and got an earful from her surgeon. She said four months later she can’t even tell she only has one kidney. Howden is closing in on complete recovery.

This is the sort of thing that bonds people for life, Howden said of his relationship with his niece.

“To say she is a generous person is putting it very mildly,” he said. “She is my hero.”

This story was in the November 28, 2010 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.

Review: ‘The Impostor’s Daughter’ by Laurie Sandell

When Laurie Sandell, if that is her real last name, was growing up, her father would have the mail stopped every time he went out of town. If, by some twist, Laurie did get her hands on the delivery, she would find envelopes addressed to all sorts of people she had never heard of.

The Impostor’s Daughter by Laurie Sandell, a chronicler of celebrity stories and editor at Glamour, is a graphic memoir recounting a childhood spent with a mysterious father who has larger-than-life stories of honors, awards, medals, and elbow rubbing. Sandell, his favorite of his three daughters, is always trying to please him, and likes to leave little funny drawings for him to find. As she gets older, and they disconnect a bit from their original clique, she starts to question the truth in the fantastic stories he has told her. Does he work for the CIA? Who is this guy? And why in the hell did he open multiple credit cards in her name, and completely demolish her credit score before she’s ever even pursed her own plastic?

She begins investigating her father, with plans to write an article for a magazine about his life and lies. At first he is totally game. He spends hours with her talking about killing people and almost being killed and jail time and the biggie bigs he’s called friends. She records these sessions, and then starts fact checking. No, he didn’t graduate from that university. No, he never worked there. Looks like he borrowed a shitton of money from a family friend, never paid it back and ruined the chance for future dinner parties. And he is wracking up some serious debt. Her mother, meanwhile, ignores all of this. Continues to give him, as she says, the benefit of doubt.

As a journalist, I’m not sure why Sadell went the illustrated memoir route. She can obviously write, she’s a professional writer. Her drawings are more from the spare and realistic vein, and they are fine. She doesn’t take advantage of the panel space. No extra details. No hidden jokes. No foreshadowing or clues to the time period the story is set in. It’s a bit of a waste. Especially in the case of this story: Dude, her dad is a total fraud. And as she investigates his claims, he appeals to her emotionally with reminders of family loyalty and vague suicide threats. This is compelling stuff that could have been an epic, if not award-winning, word book. It’s a total page flipper, even for its faults.

The side stories, too, seem to strip away some of the skin from the meat of all of this. Sandell inserts her relationship with Ben, a guy she meets online with whom she develops a long-distance relationship. It’s a lot of mixed emotions, on again off again, and I believe it is meant to illustrate the point that: Look. My dad fucked me up so big time, that I don’t even know what I want with this nice and normal dude from California. She’s also building up her tolerance for Ambien and mixing it with wine. And then there are these celebrity interviews that land her across the table from the fluffy haired and sunglassed sect. She’s clearly enamored with her job among the rich and famous, which she explains by noting the way her father’s larger-than-life stories have made her crave larger-than-life, oft-photographed super people. Unfortunately, paired with a drawing of all the celebs she has interviewed, it seems unprofessional and name dropp-y. (Ashley Judd, for instance, is one of the supporting characters in the story).

There is just so much potential here with the base story, that was all whittled away because of some bad decision making about delivery. I wish she had a do over.

This review was originally published at Minnesota Reads on November 22, 2010.

Daily: ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Harry Potter fans arrived with the famous scribbled lightning bolts on foreheads, and in schoolgirl skirts and ties — the official Hogwarts uniform.

Sonny Schiefelbein wore a baggy green dress, wild hair wrapped in a multi-

colored scarf, argyle socks and oversized round black-framed glasses. She took a little extra effort to transform herself into the character Professor Trelawney.

“Professor?” asked Nathaniel Harvie, 14, approaching her. “Isn’t this so sad?”

Schiefelbein, 22, agreed with the boy she had never met before the premiere of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” early Friday at Duluth 10 theaters. Part One of the cinematic finale to the popular series of wizard fiction by J.K. Rowling was showing on three screens. It had sold out — more than 700 tickets — at least three weeks before it opened. Superior 7 and Lakes 10 theaters also sold out midnight shows.

Before the movie started, Harvie and Schiefelbein talked about this ending to the story they had both grown up reading and watching. Harvie had a black cape draped around his shoulders.

“It’s a cloak,” the Duluth East freshman corrected.

The final 45 minutes of the movie had the audience cackling and sniffling. Among the diehards asked, it was unanimous: Best Harry Potter movie yet. It was edgy, funny and sad, with a side of love.

Billy Wagness, 23, waited for friends in the lobby. He was dressed in a long, fitted black robe and carried a wand. Professor Snape, right down to the hair.

“Hands down the most true to the books,” Wagness said. “The most fulfilling movie of the series. They really covered their bases.”

Harvie said it was hard to compare this dark story to the other movies set at Hogwarts, where the magic is more charming.

“I cried like eight times,” he said. “I’m still sort of processing.”

“It’s very dark,” Logan West, 19, said. “The darkest they’ve done.”

“It’s really emotional,” added his friend, Chloe Meyer.

The orphaned hero with magical powers entered the collective conscience in 1997, and over the next decade, Rowling published six additional books. The young, scarred boy grows up, makes friends and enemies, and … well, we won’t spoil it for you. The final book has been split into two movies. The second is scheduled to be released next summer.

Plenty of the people in the audience had been steeped in Potter lore for the entirety of their reading life.

“This is sad because after this, it’s the end of an era,” Harvie said. “From the time I was 8, there has always been a new book coming out, every year. It’s like a routine. By the end of this, everyone has gotten such a connection to the characters.”

Anna Ambrosi, 13, wore a wild black wig, a long velvet dress and black boots. She opted for evil, in the guise of death eater Bellatrix Lestrange, a strong woman, which Ambrosi said she likes in a character. Ambrosi was with a friend who was dressed as Hermione Granger, part of Harry Potter’s posse who gets crushy with the third member of the trio, Ron Weasley.

“She’s definitely a scary character,” Ambrosi said of Lestrange. “It’s a moving story that inspires perseverance and being strong. Like Hermione — she’s really strong and smart, unlike some girls in books.”

Like “Twilight”?

“Harry Potter and ‘Twilight’ fans don’t mix,” Ambrosi said.

Jason Hafeman, 20, prefers the books to the big screen and said that he hoped dividing the final book would allow for a more-detailed movie. He wore a white shirt, suspenders, black pants and — of course — the lightning-bolt scar.

“I wanted to let everyone here know I’m here for a purpose,” he said.

This story was in the November 20, 2010 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.

Review: ‘You Lost Me There’ by Rosecrans Baldwin

My very special gentleman friend has this thing with the last third of movies and books. Usually he hates them. Probably would rather have the ending lopped off, than nose dive into a suck pool. Especially in the situation of a really, really, really good first two-thirds.

I had that in mind as I neared the ending of Rosecrans Baldwin’s debut novel You Lost Me There. I considered closing the book. Sealing it. Shelving it. Letting the story end where I wanted to end, instead of where Baldwin wanted it to end. I wasn’t convinced that he had it in him to maintain the loveliness of the book to the final page. And by dammit, I was right. Spoiler alert: Fizzle-fest.

This post was supposed to be a love letter to those books that come around, and everything in the universe is working in unison, and suddenly you have the hots for a collection of words but no idea why. This one has got a strong science plot line, that includes actual science words. It’s not an addiction memoir, or Japanese horror. The words won’t lull you into a dreamy Murakami coma. It’s just really good. A pleasant place to live for eight hours. Or should I say, the six-ish or so hours before the story just dissolves. Such a shame. A damn, damn shame.

Dr. Victor Aaron, a pretty decent scientist researching Alzheimer’s Disease, is a worker bee whose wife, Sara, died a few years ago in a car accident. Things were a little blotchy in their relationship at the time. She was a playwright slash screenwriter with a solid flick on her resume. There was a trial separation, and also a trip to a couples therapist, who assigned a writing project: List the five benchmarks for where this relationship took a turn.

Victor disses the assignment, balks at psychiatry, but later finds her cards which reveal that her memories of their marriage deviate from his own. Confusing times for a biggie in the brain world, who specializes in memories. In the meantime, he’s got a handful of ladies in his life, and he isn’t pulling his weight in any of these relationships. There is a sassafrass young lady who spends Friday evenings performing burlesque shows for his personal viewing, and a gossip-y, smoking, drinking old bitty he eats dinner with on Friday nights. His lab parter is flailing around with big questions about love. And, later, his goddaughter moves in for the summer.

But, dude. He’s coasting. Doesn’t realize that the young burlesque dancer is developing real feelings for him, and he is accused of being inconsiderate by the old dinner partner. Poor lab partner is frustrated; He embarrasses the hell out of the goddaughter, a sort of confusing character who seems inches from leaning Lolita.

And those darn notecards are haunting him.

Victor is a toughie. His motivations, or lack thereof, are frustrating. But Baldwin has mastered the art of the supporting role: Everyone around him is a real pleasure. These two components work really well together.

But there isn’t a climax, which is interesting because Victor himself can’t finish. So unfortunate, since there are so many nice thoughts on love and loss and memory and relationships.

If I had it to do again, I’d have followed my instincts with this one and ditched out on the book toward the end, before it ditched out on me. I’d have written the love letter about those certain something books.

This review was originally posted at Minnesota Reads on November 19, 2010.

Feature: Andrea Cremer, bestselling YA novelist

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

With Andrea Cremer’s debut novel, she has changed the dripping-incisors back story of the cursed lycanthropes.

In “Nightshade,” the first of a trilogy, earning the fur is a privilege and a blessing — not the stuff of agonizing glares, and pained howls at the full moon. And the hero is Calla Tor, a teenage girl, a shape shifter on the fast track to becoming the alpha female of the pack, coupled up with sexy wolf-mate Ren Laroche. Things get wonky when Calla saves the life of a human boy, then subsequently falls for said human boy.

Turns out the teens are digging this new take on an old creature. The Ashland native’s novel is No. 9 on the New York Times Best-seller list for chapter books this week.

“It was really surprising and wonderful. It was a surreal moment,” Cremer said of getting that phone call from her publicist.

Cremer is a history professor at Macalester College in St. Paul. Her staff bio includes courses on religion, race and society in the development of early American society, and gender and sexuality in colonial America and the early republic. She is on a sabbatical this semester, and has been touring with her book. She grew up in Ashland, and was an undergrad at Northland College — where Sigurd Olson is believed to be the only other writer alum to have landed on the New York Time’s Best-seller list.

The Los Angeles Times called “Nightshade”: “A fantastical mash-up of religious warriors and witch hunts, of feminist will and societal oppression. … ‘Nightshade’ is a book for well-read hopeless romantics who like their heroines conflicted, their love interests smoldering and their passions triangulated and torrid, yet unfulfilled.”

The descriptor “the anti-“Twilight” has been bandied about by reviewers. And it is true that when it came to making a protagonist, Cremer went with an empowered female lead. Calla Tor would probably go for the wishy-washy doe-eyed Bella Swan’s jugular.

“You never want to say you hear voices,” Cremer said. “In the case of ‘Nightshade,’ Calla really came into my head and wouldn’t let go. I knew there was a girl, independent and strong. She wanted to be a warrior and a leader. I also knew she was a wolf.”

There is a crossover in readership between her book and Stephenie’s Meyer’s epic vampire collection, Cremer said. The Twi-Hards have embraced her novel.

Despite growing up with the great Northwoods for her playground, and being influence by the scenery for this novel, Cremer set her story in Vail, Colo. She needed a mountain, she said. Lutsen wasn’t going to cut it. And she needed a place where wealthy and elite wolf keepers could mingle with society, but also have remote areas. Cremer said she is familiar with Boulder, Colo., and Denver, and what she didn’t know about Vail, she found using Google Earth, which provides satellite photographs of addresses all over the world.

The next two books of the series are completed. “Wolfsbane” comes out next summer, and the finale, “Bloodrose,” comes out in 2012. She is working on a prequel to “Nightshade” right now, as well as a re-invention of the 19th century filled with gadgets and scientists and a place where the American Revolution fails and the British Empire takes over with terrible machines.

She has been touring with the book. Cremer just returned from Chicago and jets off for Florida next week.

Cremer started writing “Nightshade” after a horseback-riding accident, sentenced to living horizontal in fall 2008.

“For me, writers were people who lived in their parents’ basement,” she said. “I had all this time I couldn’t do anything other than lie on my couch. As soon as I started writing fiction, it was a switch I turned on inside myself that I couldn’t turn off.

“It was one of the scariest things, once I realized it was what I wanted to do,” she said. “If I didn’t get published, it would be a heartbreak I’d never get over.”

This story was in the November 14, 2010 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.

Review: ‘The Hellbound Heart’ by Clive Barker

Where was my head? I spent the Halloween season searching for the ghostly and gruesome without ever once considering the work of Clive Barker. Then, one night, we landed on the Sy/Fy Channel in time to catch a wonderfully gross movie based on one of his short stories. Eyeballs popped out of heads. A meat hook blow was delivered to a crotch. Bodies were hung and bled like sides of beef. I cackled and gagged. Sometimes simultaneously. And then cracked into Barker’s The Hellbound Heart, the horror novella behind the Hellraiser series.

Good Golly.

The story starts with Frank, an adventure seeker and pleasure addict. He comes to own this puzzle box, and when he finally solves it and gets it open, he unleashes the Cenobites, these devilish sadomasochists who amp up his senses to the extreme. It’s all briefly good, then torturous. He, to put it in Barker-ian terms, spills his seed on the floor of the bedroom in his grandparent’s house where he has performed this ritual — which includes a urine sample on an altar.

Frank’s brother Rory and his wife Julie move into the old place. Julie has residual hot pants for Frank after a sexy encounter involving her wedding dress that happened just before her big day. When Rory gets a gusher in the room where Frank disappeared, blood spills in the spot where Frank’s seed landed. Through some sort of lusty instincts, Julie figures out that a malformed Frank is hidden in some alternate realm, present in this room, and needs blood to regain his human form. So she helps a playa out with the use of liquor and seductive glances at lonely businessmen. Knifing ensues.

First of all: This book is so hokey and it is written in this kind of archaic way that is heavy and embarrassing. But damned if I didn’t have a snicker about to burst for the duration of the story. This is also delicious horror-flavored candy. It’s like ODing at the Junior Mints-Lick ‘em Aid-Nerds buffet.

Exhibit A:

The proximity of this harem aroused him, despite circumstances. He opened his trousers and caressed his cock, more eager to have the seed spilled and so be freed of these creatures than for the pleasure of it.

“He was dimly aware, as he worked his inches, that he must make a pitiful sight: A blind man in an empty room, arousef roa dream’s sake. But the wracking, joyless orgasm failed to even slow the relentless display. His knees bucked and his body collapsed to the boards where his spunk had fallen.”

Exhibit B:

Not if it suits you,” he said and clamped his mouth over hers, his tongue frisking her teeth for cavities.

This shortie falls in the maybe not necessarily good-good, but wholly entertaining. There is a cleverness to this style of story, where demons are built from scratch, and your next-door neighbors could be carving up pasty white dudes in the master bedroom. I like the ease with which the characters sign on to the idea that certainly the problem is one of a paranormal nature. I believe there will be more Clive Barker in my little life.

This review was originally posted at Minnesota Reads on November 10, 2010.

Review: Jeff Daniels concert

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Jeff Daniels addressed the celebrity farkle-narkle immediately.

“We got any ‘Dumb and Dumber’ fans here tonight?” the co-star of the 1994 comedy with Jim Carrey asked the audience of about 120 at Sacred Heart Music Center on Thursday night. “There are some of you who think of it as your ‘Citizen Kane.’ ”

The audience cackled when he invited them to get out their cell phones and take their photos now. The actor/singer/songwriter/guitar player strummed as he chatted. Sure enough, screens were lifted in his direction. He mugged a bit, goofy smiles to different sections of the room.

“Let’s get that (stuff) out of the way right off the bat.”

The award-winning actor seems to have created a niche with his brand of concert. He’s a guitar-plucking memoirist whose songs swing between hilarious and thoughtful. He’s your unassuming neighbor leaning over the fence: black T-shirt, baseball cap, his boots keeping the beat. Mostly he sang slices of his own life both among the rich and famous and the pedestrians of Toronto.

  • About being killed by Clint Eastwood in the 2002 film “Blood Work.” The song, “Dirty Harry Blues,” includes Daniels’ own impersonation of Eastwood, a low, throaty monotonous growl.
  • “Have a Good Life Then Die,” the story of nearly running over a man in Canada and the verbal onslaught that followed.
  • About his daughter’s pedal-to-the-metal days with her learner’s permit in “Daddy’s Little Daughter.”
  • And the crowd favorite: A story about the time he left his wife behind at a truck stop on the way to Cooperstown for a family vacation.He performed two non-originals, songs penned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, his friend from their old NYC theater days. The first was about a dancer, sipping gin with a soda straw, holding her joint under the table. The second was about a bus ride from Missouri to New York. Daniels said he keeps his original copy of the lyrics on the wall.

    It wasn’t all yucks, though. Daniels slowed things down here and there during the first half, moreso after the 15-minute intermission. He’s got a pleasant voice. Full, with a bluesy accent without the bluesy tragedy. His songs went from quick-picking fun to slower journal entries. But there was always a story.

    When it was over he stood up, took off his black baseball cap and took a deep bow. He got a standing ovation, and it didn’t take much to get him back in his chair for one more song.

    His RV — oft-referenced throughout the show — was idling at the curb, a dog at shotgun.

  • This review was in the November 12, 2010 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.