Saturday, June 4, 2011

8 Months of Interesting Reading

If it is spring, it must be time to thing back on what I have read this past school year.

Much like the Michigan spring weather this year, great adult reading was not readily evident for much of what should have been spring. Nonetheless, here are some of my recent reads that I enjoyed and think others might as well.


Beautiful Creatures by Tracy Chevalier introduces readers to an under-appreciated woman of the 19th century, Mary Anning, who was the first woman to find and assemble skeletons of previously unknown prehistoric animals. Chevalier chooses not to dwell so much on the scientific importance of the work of Mary Anning as on the friendship between Mary, who was the Sunday school educated daughter of a carpenter in Lyme Regis, England, and the London born and raised, upper class Elizabeth Philpot. The result is a story of crossing usual social boundaries in ways that benefit and burden both women, while introducing and a woman and a field of study often overlooked in the literary world.

Room by Emma Donoghue got a great deal of hype this year. It is not a perfect book but it is an interesting imagining of what life would be like for a five year old raised without any contact with the outside world. It is a testament to the strength of a young woman, the boy's mother, who was kidnapped and, in one of those horror stories we hope to never hear about again, kept against her will by a man who keeps her for his personal use. She has her kidnapper's child and it is that child who, five years later, narrates this story. Ma has made the 11' x 11' room that is their home a world of its own. What is most upsetting for Jack is when he and his mother escape from the only home he has ever known. I am particularly impressed with the conclusion of this story. Too many books, like news coverage of these events, would end with the escape and let us assume that they all lived happily ever after.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonsen appealed to me with its very British feel and its look at racial and class conflicts. When a retired British major, a widower, begins to find the widowed proprietress of a local shop interesting, this breach of class standards is further complicated by the fact that she is Pakistani. There are some pithy insights when Major Pettigrew takes Mrs. Ali to his local golf club. The humor throughout the book is firmly grounded in a recognition of the absurdities of life.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown presents some of the most fascinating and readable non-fiction I have encountered in years. I know little and generally care even less about astronomy, but Mike Brown has a knack for making it interesting, exciting, and even fun. While he did not actually kill Pluto, it is Brown's work that lead to the decision by those who make such decrees that Pluto did not merit being called a planet unless we wanted to suddenly have myriad new planets. I was most intrigued by the process of locating new celestial bodies and then the politics and protocols of naming them.

Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by Gwen Cooper is a good read for a lazy afternoon. It is not profound but it is enjoyable to read about a young woman (the author) who adopts a blind cat and finds that he has changed her life. She could have bogged this down with life lessons, but she manages to primarily keep to the story of love and persistence for both Homer and herself.

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder follows the pattern of many of Kidder's books of introducing a person who has faced a difficult past and/or is now giving back to the world in amazing ways. Deogratias, the subject of this book, was nearing completion of medical school in his homeland of Burundi when the genocide began. With much bravery and a generous dose of luck, he escapes with his life and eventually makes his way to New York City. The reader follows his paranoia driven attempts to find direction in his life. It is through chance meetings with some remarkable Americans that doors open for Deogratias, but it is personal drive that leads him back to Burundi to build clinics and spread medical care to those people who were not so lucky.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore is an interesting look at how just a few small events can change a life. Wes Moore, the author, discovered another Wes Moore whose life almost mirrored his own. Both men are African Americans who were born in Baltimore at approximately the same time, both were raised by single mothers, and both had ample opportunity to join gangs and deal drugs. What are the differences that made one a Rhodes Scholar, White House Fellow, and author with many more indicators of success while the other is currently in prison for shooting a police officer?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman who in 1951 was in her twenties and dying of cervical cancer. It also tells the story of cells that were scraped from her body and encouraged to replicate themselves to be used in medical and scientific research for the past sixty years. Neither Henrietta nor her family understood what was happening; her surviving children did not even know of the existence of HeLa cells and their connection to their mother until decades later. Skloot interviewed Henrietta's family, primarily her daughter, to give voice to their story. While some people made millions of dollars from research with HeLa cells, the Lacks family can not afford medical care for themselves. On the other hand, the cells have helped to save millions of lives. Henrietta's family struggles to come to terms with this dichotomy. So do I.

There are so many good books waiting to be read. I hope we all find them and the time to read scads of them this summer.

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