Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks was an ordinary mother of five living in Baltimore in the 1950s. She grew up in poverty on a tobacco farm of Virginia and she died after an extremely destructive bout of cervical cancer at the age of 30. During the course of her treatment, a sample of her cancerous tissue was taken without her knowledge or consent by scientists. What happened next couldn’t have been predicted by anyone – Henrietta’s cells contained the ability to survive in the lab indefinitely. Known as HeLa cells, their almost magical properties allowed scientists to discover vast new ways to treat all types of illnesses, including polio.

Despite all the triumphs in the labs, the Lacks family continued to live in poverty with no knowledge about Henrietta’s cells. It was only decades later that they were able to fully comprehend just how important their mother was to modern science. You can imagine how upset and proud they were.

Rebecca Skloot spent a decade uncovering and researching this story. Her research really shows. But don’t be afraid of the science jargon– Skloot takes special care to break down even the most advanced science issues and procedures into easy to understand language. You’ll be fascinated by what scientists have been able to accomplish thanks to the HeLa cells. More importantly, you’ll be asking yourself the question – if it’ll help to scientific advancements, who really owns my body?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

Lucy is just a normal 20-something, living in a small town and working as a children's librarian. Things are pretty humdrum - a potential romance here, some interactions with quirky neighbors there. The one consistently interesting part of Lucy's life is the young patron, 10 year old Ian Drake, who races to the children's area to devour any and all books that Lucy can loan him. Ian comes from a stifling household and his reading habits are closely monitored by his oppressive parents. One day, Lucy arrives early at work and finds Ian has managed to stay in the library overnight. What starts out as a trip to return Ian to his house turns into a road trip all across the Northeast. Lucy doesn't mean to kidnap Ian - it just turns out that way. As the two travel across many states, Lucy tries to figure out what in the hell she's just done (and what can she do now?!).As the trip continues, Lucy comes to grips with her actions and tries to rediscover what makes her tick.

Despite it's potentially creepy subject matter, The Borrower is actually quite a charming little story. Both Lucy and Ian are fairly fleshed out characters and readers can clearly sympathize with their decisions. Makkai throws in a ton of pop culture and literary references, such as Goodnight Moon and The Music Man. Lucy genuinely cares for Ian on a parental level (thus eliminating any references to Lolita) and just wants him to be happy. The two have such a sweet repetoire that in spite of the stupidity of their situation, you can't help but tag along with them on their adventure.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

The major criticism of Lisa See's previous book Shanghai Girls was that it ended so abruptly. At long last, with See's new book Dreams of Joy, fans will finally see what wound up happening to sisters May and Pearl and their daughter Joy. Joy picks up immediately where Shanghai Girls left off, where Joy runs away after her father's suicide whereupon she learns that Pearl is actually her aunt and not her biological mother (May is the true mother). Joy flees the United States and returns to China in an effort to find her true biological father, an artist named Z.G. The only problem is that China is undergoing its massive communist program "The Great Leap Forward" and the country is very very different than what Joy is prepared for. Once in China, Joy finds her father and settles into life on the Green Dragon commune and struggles to regain control over her life and what she thought was her family. Meanwhile, Pearl rushes back into the country she fled 20 years ago to find and rescue her daughter. But with Mao and the communist regime in charge, living is significantly harder than expected.

Overall, a quick read. Readers will see life through both Joy and Pearl's eyes. Despite not being her biological mother, Pearl has a fierce love and devotion for her daughter that is touching. As Joy quickly realizes the error of her decision to come to China, her growth and maturation is 100% believable.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lost in Shangri-la : the epic true story of a World War II plane crash into the Stone Age by Mitchell Zuckoff

It sounds like it could be a classic Hollywood action film – a plane crashes in a dense jungle in New Guinea and the few survivors aboard must deal with a variety of life-threatening problems, the least of which includes the cannibalistic natives that are all around them. The crazy thing is that what could pass for an entertaining summer movie actually did happen and the events are recounted in Mitchell Zuckoff’s new book Lost in Shangri-La. During World War II, the United States established a military base in New Guinea. On one fateful day, a group of military men and women decide to take a sightseeing trip to an obscure part of the island, dubbed “Shangri-La.” When the plane crashes, only three members of the team manage to survive – a lively WAC (Women’s Army Corps), a young lieutenant who lost his twin brother in the crash and takes command of the trio, and a sergeant with a massive head injury.

The group has no food (relying on Charms hard candy), little water, no way to contact their military base, and the knowledge that the local Dani tribe are quite violent and unpredictable. The rest of the book is about their survival and the courageous efforts that the military takes to rescue them, including dropping in a group of paratroopers and a dangerous plane rescue.

This amazing story of courage and daring feats of bravery will ultimately inspire and thrill anyone (even non-fiction fans).

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Summer 2011 Book Club selections

Without further ado, here are the selections for the library's summer 2011 book club:

6/28: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand7/12: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan7/26: Composed: A Memoir by Roseanne Cash

8/9: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov8/23: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Registration will begin on 6/1. The first 25 people to register will receive free copies of the book. Space is limited, so make sure you register early by either calling 609-399-2434 ext. 5226 or email

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Having just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan offers a little bit of everything to everyone. Egan follows the lives of several individuals who are all loosely connected to each other at various points in their lives. The book starts off examining the life of Sasha, an assistant to a flourishing music producer living in New York City. Sasha is a beautiful but dark character– she’s a long time kleptomaniac with a rough past. As the novel takes off, readers learn more about Sasha’s history (through the eyes of her uncle), as well as take a peek into the lives of her boss, Bennie Salazar, former teenage friends and boyfriends, and several other motley characters with completely unique life stories all their own. Some chapters are touching and quirky (e.g. a story told entirely through the use of PowerPoint slides), while others are solid tragedies.

While the concept for the book could be confusing to some, it doesn’t feel disjointed at all. The hardest part in reading Goon Squad is figuring out where each person fits into the world that Egan has created and at what point in time. The connecting thread that runs through all of the chapters deals with human development– how do we change as we age? How did we get to this particular point in our lives?

If you liked the movies Valentine’s Day or Magnolia (both of which feature lots of different mini-narratives within one major story), you’ll undoubtedly love A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Please look after Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

An act so simple winds up creating the most compelling story that could happen to anyone with elderly parents. Park So-nyo is on her way to meet her children in Seoul when she vanishes at the train station. As the days turn into weeks with no sign of their mother, the family copes with the anguish over their major loss. The book has 4 major chapter/perspectives- So-nyo's eldest daughter, eldest son, husband and then So-nyo herself. As the novel unwinds, readers find out more and more about the woman who has done everything in her power to keep her (ungrateful) family happy and stable. All families have their secrets, but as the primary caretaker in the house, "Mom" has the most.

Please Look after Mom was a bestseller in Korea and only recently was translated into English. Readers may be slightly turned off by the second-person narrative style (which really isn't used all that frequently in contemporary fiction), but one gets used to it fairly quickly.

I absolutely LOVED this book - the language, the changing perspectives and the plot were incredibly interesting and absorbing. I can't recommend it enough!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sing you home by Jodi Picoult

I can say one thing about Jodi Picoult - she's definitely not afraid to broach the "hot" topics of our time. This time around, Picoult covers gay marriage, embryo rights, alcoholism as well as infertility. Zoe and Max were married for several years, trying valiantly to conceive, spending thousands of dollars on IVF treatments. When they divorce, neither of them gives any thought to the 3 fertilized embryos that are frozen in storage. However, Zoe (a music therapist) eventually falls in love with Vanessa, a school guidance counselor and the two desparately want to start a family with those frozen embryos. The only problem is that also during this time, Max has become deeply religious and refuses to give away the embryos to a homosexual couple, preferring instead to give them to his older brother and sister-in-law. What follows is par-for-the-course Picoult (tense courtroom scenes and back and forth perspectives). All in all, a good read. The most interesting aspect of Sing you Home is that it comes with a music CD of songs that parallel the themes in the book. The lyrics are written by Picoult and sung by Ellen Wilber.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fault Lines by Nancy Huston

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2008, Fault Lines takes an interesting narrative approach and follows four generations of a family counter-chronologically. Family secrets start to unravel as each generation's character is revealed. We first meet 6 year old Sol, a coddled spoiled brat of a character, as he and his family are on a trip to Germany to revisit a long-lost relative. Huston then introduces the reader to the other generations; his father Randall, grandmother Sadie, and great grandmother Erra. As each character's story unfolds, you can see how each narrative weaves into one. The last section, which centers on Erra, is the most eye-opening one and is the final piece of the novel's puzzle. I don't want to say much more because it'd be giving too much away, but suffice it to say, it's a pretty intense (and sad) read.