With so much travel this month I was able to delve into multiple books in many genres. Some of these had long been on my to-read list, and some were surprises to me. About halfway through the month I realized I had only read books by women authors and decided to stick with it. The only bummer? That being on the road meant that I read most of the books on my iPad instead of having the satisfaction of having a solid paper book in my hand as I read.
Now that I re-read that complaint about having an iPad and riding planes and trains all over Europe, I feel a little jerky. Oh well, on to the blurbs!
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
This is truly an exceptional book, merging science, race, class, history, and mental health into a surprisingly unified whole. In the acknowledgements, author Rebecca Skloot jokes about how long it took her to write this book, but I can’t imagine anyone having pulled off such a masterpiece in a short amount of time.
In the 1940s in the segregated south, Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer. Doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins take some of her cancerous cells for research purposes and discover that they don’t die in the lab like many others do. These “immortal cells” are known as He La cells and become indispensable to medical research even as Lacks’ memory fades in the minds of the doctors who are benefiting from the use of these cells.
This book tells the story non just of Henrietta and the researchers, but also of her family long after Henrietta has passed. The best parts of the book are about her children as they grapple with their increasing knowledge of the influence of their mother’s cells on modern science. Dealing with mental and physical health issues and decades later still longing for their mother, their confusion, pain, and growth were the most striking elements of this phenomenal read.
God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine
Victoria Sweet, MD wants to be a different kind of doctor, one who looks beyond individual symptoms and ailments to the whole health of her patients. Starting out in her career she finds the perfect place to practice this sort of medicine: San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, an almshouse that treats those whom no one else will care for. This memoir traces her growth as a physician and her extensive research into the medicine of Hildegard von Bingen (a major bonus for any other Hildegard fans out there!) alongside the changes in health care that transformed Laguna Honda and most of American medicine in the second half of the twentieth century.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
I don’t really have anything to add to the myriad rave reviews about this book. Its protagonist’s life is so full that it would be hard not to write an engaging book about him, but Laura Hillenbrand shapes it into a book that will stand the test of time. Many of my students read this book when they are assigned to read non-fiction, and I love that they do.
Also, knowing that Hillenbrand struggles with chronic illness too gave me a little kick in the pants, and a feeling of camaraderie. If she can do it, what’s my excuse?
Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (Vintage)
Like many avid readers I often surprise myself with my capacity to be interested in just about everything that comes my way, and this book proved again how true that is. Who knew I would be engrossed by learning about Andrea Stuart’s family history in the Barbadian sugar business?
Truth be told, I didn’t know anything about Barbados, but that has changed thanks to this readable history. With both European and African ancestry, Stuart is merciless on issue of race (perhaps growing up in England, without the American terror of talking about color that I am so used to, helped with that). Her depictions of the treatment of slaves can be brutal. Reading this on the heels of Unbroken, which also included graphic depictions of torture, I finally resorted to skipping over whole pages because I couldn’t take any more violence.
The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.
How could one not be engrossed by such opening sentences? This novel traces Dr. Marina Singh’s journey into the Brazilian wild to get to the bottom of the death of her friend and colleague. I should admit that I didn’t love this book as much as I loved Patchett’s earlier novel Bel Canto. Is it because I like opera more than I like science, or because I never could force myself to finish Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? I still recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a page turner with outstanding writing.
The Supreme Macaroni Company: A Novel
This book was dumber than I thought it was going to be. Or maybe it’s just that its characters were dumber than I expected them to be. I had never heard of Adriana Trigiani or the Valentine trilogy of which this was the concluding chapter. When I saw that parts of it were set in Italy, that was enough to convince me to download it for the train ride from Assisi to Milan.
My major complaint was that the characters seemed to sacrifice every lick of common sense in the service of creating dramatic plot moments. Am I really supposed to believe that an engaged couple wouldn’t discuss on what continent they were going to live until they were on their honeymoon? Or not discuss a name for their child until after the child is born? Or perhaps most jarring to me was that two characters (who shall remain unnamed to avoid spoilers) don’t have a conversation about where to bury a deceased family member until after the funeral.
That said, Trigiani nicely captures the Catholicism of the family’s in the book, and draws some insightful lines between Italian-Americans and Italians. Final verdict? Enjoyable if not edifying.
Much like Unbroken, this book has been thoroughly promoted, explained, reviewed and picked apart. It was positively gripping. There was laundry that stayed unfolded in the dryer for a few days while I finished the book, and I didn’t dare start anything else right after I finish for fear that I would get sucked in again and descend into total squalor.
I’m not revealing too much by saying that the book is part mystery, part psychological thriller. I enjoyed the mystery more. I have a distaste for nutjobs both in life and in art, so when we start delving into people’s quirks and worse I want to grab them by their imaginary shoulders and shout “STOP BEING LIKE THAT!” Between Gone Girl and The Supreme Macaroni Company I finished July needing a break from bourgeois head cases messing up their lives.
What did you read this month?
Disclosure: This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. Purchases made through these links send some change into my piggy bank at no additional cost to you.
Leave a Reply