The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

ImmortalLifeofHenriettaLacks-749798Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer who died of cancer. No one would have remembered her name if her cells hadn’t proven so unusual. Known as HeLa to scientists, her cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 and, because of their unique properties, used to help develop the polio vaccine as well as in cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more. Her cell’s have generated millions, but her family can’t afford health insurance. This well-written non-fiction book takes readers from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where Henrietta was treated for cancer, to laboratories with freezers full of her cells, to her small hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore where her children and grandchildren struggle to survive today. This is a riveting story about ethics in medicine. Do we control the very stuff of which we are made? (On a personal note, this review is dedicated to Freddie Gray who died in Baltimore in the spring of 2015 at the hands of the Baltimore police. Let’s hope his sacrifice sparks change.)  

Marley and Me – John Grogran

200px-Marley_&_Me_book_coverI do love my pets and this book, although not literary fiction, was a joy to read and quite the emotional journey. In it, John and Jenny are just beginning their life together when they bring home an adorable, active puppy named Marley. He quickly grows into a ninety-seven pound Labrador retriever who crashes through screen doors, drools on guests, steals women’s underwear, and eats everything including dry-wall, couches and fine jewelry. Although he fails at obedience school, Marley’s joyful approach to life, his love and his loyalty are as boundless as his bad behavior. Marley shares with John and Jenny all the highs and lows of their young adult life, including the birth of their children. Yet, a dog’s life is not as long as that of a human, so we must also bear witness to Marley’s decline in the last stages of a well-lived life. This book is a true testament to unconditional love and the bond that can form between animal and human.

Tuesdays With Morrie – Mitch Albom

417px-Tuesdays_with_Morrie_book_coverThis is a deeply felt memoir about relationships, reconnecting and the meaning of life.  Morrie is Mitch’s favorite college professor.  They establish a great rapport. Morrie actually cries when Mitch graduates.  Mitch promises to stay in touch but he doesn’t.  He becomes a newspaper reporter, working constantly.  Work consumes his life.  Sixteen years after graduation, Mitch learns Morrie has ALS.   He begins to visit him every Tuesday.  They discuss a range of topics:  regrets, death, love, money. Mitch is intrigued by Morrie’s views.  He takes notes and makes recordings.  Some of Morrie’s ideas include following self-created values, loving others and learning to accept the inevitability of death.  They hit home with Mitch who is struggling to balance work and family.  With each visit, Morrie gets sicker.  At their last visit, Morrie is bed-ridden and near death.  They hug, but now it is Mitch who is crying.

 

Sleepers – Lorenzo Carcaterra

sleepersSet in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen in the 1960s, the details in this book are so vivid you feel as if you are with the four boys at the heart of the story.  The boys are lifelong friends, kings of their domain, engaging in petty pranks until one disastrous afternoon when something goes horribly wrong, and they find themselves sentenced to a year in prison at the Wilkinson Home for Boys.  At Wilkinson, they are subjected to brutal beatings, unimaginable humiliation, and worse.  Years later, one is a lawyer, one a reporter, and two professional hit men.  They all dream of revenge.  To exact it, they twist the legal system with the help of a sympathetic priest, and commandeer the courtroom, in a sensational murder trial that stirs up all the ghosts of the past.  The author published this book as a work of non-fiction.  Although the names were changed, he claimed everything in the book was true.  Carcaterra’s account of events has never been verified, but it doesn’t matter because this is a sensational read either way.

Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer

200px-Into_Thin_AirIn this non-fiction book, the author describes his 1996 expedition to scale Mt. Everest, a disastrous climb which claimed eight lives.  Initially, Krakauer was to have climbed only to the base camp to do a report on the commercialization of the mountain for the adventure magazine Outside.  However, the story awakened a childhood desire, and he decided to train for a climb to the summit instead.  The book stirred up controversy because in it Krakauer alleges safety is compromised by guides competing to get clients to the summit.  His account is disputed by certain climb participants and mountaineers alike.  I can’t speak to the controversy, but I did enjoy the book itself.  I found it well-written, and an exciting read.

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil – John Berendt

Midnight-in-the-Garden-of-Good-and-EvilThe description of place and sublime characters in this murder mystery are so rich and inventive one would think the book a novel when in fact it is a work of non-fiction.  In 1981, a person is killed in a mansion in Savannah, Georgia.  Is it murder or self-defense?  In the author’s skillful hands, the city of Savannah – a remnant of the Old South with it’s Spanish moss and shaded squares – becomes a character in and of itself.  We are introduced to the likes of an arrogant antiques dealer, a voodoo priestess who plies her trade in graveyards at midnight, a redneck gigolo and a profane black drag queen, just to name a few of the interesting characters populating Savannah’s streets.  It’s in this milieu, that Berendt reveals the details of the case in a town where everyone knows everyone else.

The Emperor Of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee

emperor_maladies_164413aThis fascinating book about the history of cancer and the fight against it, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and rightfully so.  It provides an extremely comprehensive overview of everything that is cancer.  It is at times a bit of a slog for those of us who have no medical background, but ultimately it is well worth the read.  I learned a lot about one of our biggest enemies. Check out Mukherjee’s resume: Rhodes Scholar, graduate of Stanford University, University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School, Assistant Professor at Columbia University and cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center.  Not exactly a slouch, is he?  If I get sick, I think I’d like him as my doctor, please.

The Devil In The White City – Erik Larson

The-Devil-in-the-White-City-by-Erik-Larson-Book-Cover-960x1459Larson was a National Book Award finalist for this non-fiction opus, which is so well written it reads like a historical novel. It’s about a serial killer operating in Chicago at the time of the World’s Fair in 1893. Larsen very skillfully juxtaposes the remarkable achievements of the fair’s architect, Daniel H. Burnham, in creating the “White City,” against the evil actions of H.H. Holmes, a man posing as a doctor. Holmes erected the White Fair Hotel, which was complete with a crematorium and gas chamber, and was responsible for luring countless victims, mostly single young women, to their deaths.  This book is meticulously researched.  I also liked his book Isaac’s Storm, about the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, a great deal as well.

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell

thetippingpointThis author is one of the most interesting non-fiction writers I’ve come across.  He has truly unique ideas that can sustain an entire book.  So many other non-fiction books are annoyingly repetitive with concepts that can be summed up in a single, well-written magazine article.  In this one, Gladwell explores the critical moment when an idea, trend or social behavior tips and goes viral — a phenomenon he says can be manufactured.  His books Blink and Outliers are good too!