Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

While the worlds of science, medicine, and the global economy are more closely intertwined than ever before, the role of the public is unclear. When Rebecca Skloot learned that HeLa cells, used in laboratories all over the world, originated from one woman who has been all but forgotten by medical community, she researched the history of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and the incredible legacy of her immortal cancer cells. After finding out that millions of dollars had been made from cells extracted from their mother without her permission, Lacks' family was understandably reluctant to talk to Skloot. And Skloot, who had no interest in putting herself into the book she was researching, found her interactions with the Lacks family becoming a key part of the story. It's obviously not easy to sum up, but it's a thought-provoking, multilayered book that will stay with me a long time.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


by Emma Donoghue

Five-year-old Jack has a good life. He lives with his Ma, who loves him very much, in a room filled with everything they need. Together they play games, watch TV, eat their lunch and clean up. As he tells us about his days, though, we quickly realize that something is very strange: the two never leave the room for any reason, and haven't since Jack was born. And we realize that Ma, though she does her best, is not actually happy - she's been held prisoner here by someone Jack calls "Old Nick" for seven years.

Though the setting sounds horrific, the tale is told by Jack, who, despite his unusual circumstances is a relatively normal and sweet kid. He's never known what he's missing. Their only window is a skylight, and for all Jack knows, there's nothing outside but "Outer Space." He separates things into "real" (things inside the room) and "TV" (things he's only seen on TV). Ma whisks Jack into the wardrobe at times when Old Nick visits, so the two have never seen each other.

This is one of those stories where the voice makes the book. It's an authentic voice - a bright, charming and frustrating 5-year-old - but also one you feel comfortable with even as the suspense builds and the two find themselves confronting the Outside. A remarkable book.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Story of Stuff

by Annie Leonard

After seeing Annie Leonard's popular 20-minute web movie, The Story of Stuff, like a lot of people I wanted to know more. If each link along the chain of our economy - Extraction, Production, Distribution, Consumption and Disposal - is broken, dysfunctional, and harmful to us, what can we do to change things? Leonard, who has traveled the world tracing the path of consumer goods from their creation to their disposal in landfills, expands greatly on her video, showing us both the extent of the problems facing us, and lots of great ways to correct them.

Unlike a lot of environmental books, Leonard doesn't put a lot of emphasis on trying to change our lifestyles, buying greener products, voting with our dollar, etc. While she certainly tries to live sustainably (eating locally-grown foods and sharing a lot of material goods with her neighbors) and non-toxically (keeping PVC and other toxics out of her house) she knows that there's only so much we can do on an individual level. It's not enough for us, as citizens, to choose from a menu of unhealthy or unsustainable offerings. It's time for us to change the menu itself.

How does this happen? Corporations (such as Interface carpet tile company) sometimes voluntarily decide to invest in converting to more sustainable business models, and it's inspiring to see. More often, however, corporations only make changes when it's more immediately profitable, or when they're forced to by government regulations. Leonard points out that there are great models around the world of governments steering corporations towards sustainability in ways that benefit both the corporations and the citizens who live and work with them. In a finite world, we can no longer afford to waste so much of our resources. Leonard shows a path towards a much more realistic future.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

by David Mitchell

This may end up being my favorite novel of 2010. I've been a David Mitchell fan since I read "Cloud Atlas," and always find both his ideas and his language exquisite, but I'd forgotten just how fun his novels could be. Jacob de Zoet is an early 19th-century Dutchman, a young accountant who is sent to help clean up the corruption at the Dutch trading post of Dejima, in Nagasaki Harbor, Japan. He's a good man, but obviously in over his head. The tiny, man-made island is a virtual prison for the Dutchmen, who are almost never allowed over the bridge and onto the mainland. De Zoet's cohorts cast a wary on him -- many of them were rounded up, against their will, to join the ship's crew, and are doing what they can to earn a little money on the side in Dejima.

Orito Aibagawa, a midwife, is one of the few Japanese women allowed onto Dejima, so that she may study Western medicine with the mysterious Dr. Marinus. She catches Jacob's eye, and he soon finds himself searching for ways to spend a few scraps of time with her.

The second part of the book follows Orito into a dark adventure on the mainland, and I won't say more about the plot. Fascinating setting, memorable characters and a complex, but exciting, story. Loved it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

Aibileen, a black maid in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s, works for an upper-middle-class white woman, Miss Elizabeth Leefolt, doing the housekeeping, cooking the meals, and raising the woman's little girl, Mae Mobley. Miss Elizabeth seems to have little interest in her daughter, and Mae Mobley can't help but notice. Meanwhile, Miss Hilly, one of the white woman's dearest friends, advises her to build an addition to her house -- a restroom just for Aibileen's use. After all, it's just not sanitary to be using the same facilities as the help, is it?

Miss Skeeter Phelan, a friend of Elizabeth's and Hilly's, decides she wants to be a writer, and believes she's come up with the perfect idea for a book -- what's it like to be a black maid? They must have some interesting experiences, right? So she asks Aibileen if she or anyone she knows might be interested in telling her their stories. Aibileen's response, of course, is less than enthusiastic. This is 1963, in the deep South, and there's no way Aibileen or any thinking person would endanger their job, their family, or their community by talking, let alone publishing. Skeeter assures Aibileen that everything would be anonymous -- she'll even change the name of their town. Soon the project is underway.

Stockett, who started writing "The Help" based on her memories of her family's black maid, Demetri, does her best to capture the voice of two maids, Aibileen and Minnie, as well as Skeeter. Whether she succeeds (or offends) is for you to decide. For me, my wife, and most readers we've talked to, the book is a heartfelt success, bringing the reader to a time and place and community that would otherwise be hard to imagine. More than most books I've read, this was hard to put down. I especially recommend the audio version, which uses three actresses for the three main characters.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Everything Matters!

by Ron Currie, Jr.

Lots of books have an omniscient narrator. "Little did Bob know, he was making a terrible mistake..." Okay, that was an awful example, but you get the idea. Junior Thibodeau is actually born with that voice in his head, and it's talking to him. It doesn't talk all the time, but what it says seems to be true. The information he receives is often useful, and sometimes more than he can handle. The day he's born, he's told that in 36 years, 168 days, 14 hours, and 23 seconds, the earth will be hit by a massive meteor, wiping out all life on the planet. As you can guess from the title, this is a story about deciding what to do with one's limited time. Is it worth investing in relationships, trying to help people, getting involved in a world you know will come to an end? Junior struggles with these questions, as we all do.

This was a strange book, and pretty dark at times, but Junior is ultimately a likeable character. You hope he'll succeed, whatever that means. And I really couldn't tell where the story was going... could Junior use his "gift" to help himself? To help the world? And, as the voice in Junior's head asks him, after telling him of the world's fate, does anything he does really matter?

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

by Michael Sandel

Sandel, Harvard professor, took his popular class on the philosophy of law and condensed it into 200 thought-provoking and entertaining pages. Sandel's goal is to give a brief but thorough introduction to several different legal philosophies, including Utilitarianism, Libertarianism, the works of Aristotle, John Locke and Immanuel Kant, and modern philosophers like John Rawls. In each case, Sandel uses thought experiments as well as historic legal cases to examine these philosophies from different angles. The effort to create a just society has never been easy, and I found my eyes opening to some of the benefits and pitfalls of each approach. I felt that Sandel did "justice" to each system he talks about, while still clearly having his own point of view. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Little Bee

by Chris Cleave

"Little Bee" is the name a young woman from Nigeria takes after she decides it is no longer safe to keep her own. When Chris Cleave's brief but powerful novel begins, Little Bee is being released from an Immigration Detention Center in Britain, where she's been held for two years learning the Queen's English and doing her best to keep herself alive and intact. Where she goes from here is uncertain, but she has a British man's driver's license and business card in her pocket. How she acquired these, and where they take her, I will leave for you to find out.

Sarah O’Rourke, the other narrator of the book, comes from a very different world. Sarah is an upper middle-class Brit working for a stylish magazine and raising her young son. Little Bee's appearance in her life is both a blessing and a curse, bringing up a terrible choice Sarah had once had to make, one she thought was buried in her past. I would love to say more, but one of the joys of this very human story is Cleave's perfect sense of timing in revealing the past and present to the reader. It's a story of the heroism possible in all of us, and of the way we choose to live on in the face of dark situations. Cleave's writing is beautiful and gentle, with a sense of humor that helps carry us through. I'll definitely be checking out his previous novel, Incendiary, and any of his future works.