Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks This is a worthy book to read, awesome to discuss, educational, enlightening, but not really exciting.  As a book club choice, it belongs with a group a pretty serious people who are excited to discuss the legal issues of genetic ownership, the history of human guinea pigs in the 1950's, black social issues and other serious issues regarding medicine, the law and social inequity.

Ho hum.  Give me sex and rock and roll (that is just my mood thing, not to discourage you on your path to understanding the world).

This book was written by a journalist, digging and finding golden information regarding the history of the magical HeLa cell.  Skloot was amazing in her search of not only the story of tissue used in research, but into the family history of Henrietta.  Her persistent digging into the story of Henrietta's cells as seen by the family members resulted in her meeting and befriending Henrietta's daughter Deborah. They develop a relationship that results in Skloot getting the real scoop.

Cells usually die.  They don't grow forever in a lab, but have an end life after a certain number of divisions. But, Henrietta Lacks had some cancer cells removed from her body in the 1950's that happened to not die because cancer cells don't do what healthy cells do (in this case divide a finite number of times).  These particular deviant cells grew and divided in clumps and mounds, were cultured and then shared by John Hopkins with other research labs.  Eventually, the HeLa cells (named using the first two letters of her first name followed by the first two letters of her last name) became a popular medical research medium, used in research such as the development of the polio vaccine and gene mapping.  They were used and still are used in medical research today.

This was a great book.  One of the book club members commented that she would like to see this required high school reading.  I think that is a good idea for certain classroom situations, but perhaps not to be mandated.

If you are interested in this subject, sure, read this book.  It is worthy of your interest.  If not, then pick up some nonfiction that perhaps is.  Personally, I find medical history books quite interesting.  Another one that I enjoyed was Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues by Frank Ryan.  What an interesting discussion for the lay person about AIDS, Ebola, etc...  

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie In spite of the fact that this was a horrible name for a book (who can remember that name?  and I found only a weak connection between the name and the book's content), and in spite of the fact that I usually don't read mysteries because I don't like them (and this was "A Flavia de Luce Mystery"), this was a pretty darn good book.

Set in the 1950's in the family owned once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, we meet a most interesting and delightfully entertaining group of characters.  Flavia de Luce, our sleuth, is a precocious 11 year old girl with a pendant for chemistry and a particular love for poisons.  She lives with her widowed reclusive father, and two older sisters Daphne (Daffy) and Ophelia (Feely) where book reading and rivalry rules.  In the opening chapter we find Flavia dissolving Feely's inherited pearls that had "belonged to Mummy" much to Feely's horror.  And, that is only the start of it!

The murder takes place by Chapter 2, and it is up to Flavia to untangle who killed the man that had been visiting Father the previous evening.  She found the victum layed out in the family cucumber patch, expressing his last breath. The book is well written without any nastiness that would offer it an R or probably even a PG-13 rating.  It is clean, entertaining, and quite British.

I'm happy to see that Alan Bradley has many more Flavia mysteries to entertain us.  Any of these books would make great gifts to adults and adolencent readers alike.  It isn't a great discussion book, but would be fun for a lighter mystery or dinner party oriented reading group.

Mr. Bradley became a first time novelist in his 70's, and I'm sorry he waiting so long to start! His writing is good and prolific.   In 2007 he won the Debut Dagger Award of the (British) Crimewriter’s Association for this novel.  Check out the web site more bio information, a list of his Flavia mysteries, and an opportunity to join his fan club!

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson

The Orphan Masters Son This is a great discussion book, but takes the cake for the most depressing book of my literary lifetime.  I even think this beats Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment  for the unhappy literature award.  Basically you have all the makings of a great book.  The setting is interesting; placed in North Korea, it is in a land few of us understand.  The book is very well written, matter of fact I can say that this book is well engineered.   The author left us with the most positive ending possible by saving some of the characters you grew to care about.  The story of life in this dreadful country is told through a young male orphan, Jun Do.  We travel with him as he lives, from a horrible existence to "as good as it gets".

Enough said, this book was extremely dark.  There is a level of torture described as I've not read before; there are heartbreaking scenes that reveal North Korea as the truly evil dictatorship that it is.  Do not read this book to be happy, read this book to see what it means for a whole nation of people to be imprisoned.

The trip taken by the North Korean group to Texas was a goofy addition to the book.  What was the author thinking of, I know not.  He did tie the story line together, but it seemed very unbelievable.  He seemed to show us more about how unfair a country is when there are no personal liberties.

There is a lot to discuss, however as a group discussion book, this belongs in a book club like the Marquis De Sade's Book Readers, or perhaps the Political Atrocities Literary Society.  Our book club enjoyed Korean BBQ while we discussed this, but if we were true to form, we would have had a little bit of rice and vegetables and gone home hungry.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Three Good Books to Read

Hi there! A dear friend has chosen three books she considers good reads.  The book club will be choosing one of these books.  Here is what she has picked:

1)   The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.  I have read this books, and  I think it is a good book club selection book.  Published in 2006, this 250 page read will be widely available and a relatively quick book to read.  In my opinion, it is well written and interesting. 

The following is from the review:

The History of Love spans of period of over 60 years and takes readers from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe to present day Brighton Beach. At the center of each main character's psyche is the issue of loneliness, and the need to fill a void left empty by lost love. Leo Gursky is a retired locksmith who immigrates to New York after escaping SS officers in his native Poland, only to spend the last stage of his life terrified that no one will notice when he dies. ("I try to make a point of being seen. Sometimes when I'm out, I'll buy a juice even though I'm not thirsty.") Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer vacillates between wanting to memorialize her dead father and finding a way to lift her mother's veil of depression. At the same time, she's trying to save her brother Bird, who is convinced he may be the Messiah, from becoming a 10-year-old social pariah. As the connection between Leo and Alma is slowly unmasked, the desperation, along with the potential for salvation, of this unique pair is also revealed.

2)  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This book is on my stack of books to read, given to me by another reading friend who thought it was wonderful. Published in 2009, this 290 page book will also be quite available as a used or a library book.  It looks to me to be a delightful book to read.

The following was taken from Annie Barrows website (see  for the complete book description)

January, 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she's never met, Dawsey Adams, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name in a book?  ....
A celebration of the written word in all its guises, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the debut novel by the aunt-and-niece team of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

3)   365 Thank Yous by John Kralik.  This is a non-fiction that the recommending reader has read and found inspirational.  This was published by Hyperion in 2010,  is 240 pages, and has what I can see as only 2 amazon reviews.  It is non-fiction, and I have to admit, it does sound pretty inspirational.  My Mama always told me that you can't catch flies with vinegar.

From the author:
A Simple Act of Gratitude is a book that tells the story of an inspiration, the writing of 365 Thank You Notes, and how my life was changed by the people who received them.  You can read more at his website, and even send a thank you to someone from his site (

Saturday, February 25, 2012

11/22/63 by Steven King

11/22/63 I've been a fan of Steven King my whole adult reading life.  He has a home down style that keeps the reader turning pages.  However, not everything he writes is great.  And, though I can say many good things about this book, this 849 paged reading investment was not great.  However, it was entertaining, fast and fun to read.

What really captured my interest in this book was a tunnel that  transports Jake (aka George) from the present (2011) to the same location but a different time, namely September 9, 1958.  Jake inherits, from a dying friend, the tunnel knowledge along with the idea that it would be good to  prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. To do this he has to hang out in the 50's and early 60's for 5 years.  If things aren't going good, he has the option to go back to the tunnel and start over again, a "redo", in September 9, 1958.

King is the master of horror, and this he does quite well. There are many monsters.  One of my  friends claim that time is the monster, but I disagree. Time is more of a victim.  It turns out that that this story has many human monsters (such as Lee Oswald, and other murderers in this story), but the number one monster is reveled as ole Jake the time hopper.

King was particularly clever with his idea of being able to do a "redo"in case the future (which was altered when the past was visited) wasn't what was intended.  I also loved his depiction of Derry, Maine, and the links with a previous novel, "It".  If you have never read "It", the clown monster has just hibernated in Derry at the same time that Jake passes though.  We get to revisit a few of our beloved adolescent characters from "It", Beverly and "Beep Beep" Richie.  This was delightful.

Why wasn't this a great book?  King gets off the story line, and subplots you to death with a very long love story between Jake and a gal he meets in Texas.  It was fun to read, but was too long.  The main subplot was like a book within a book.  If his editor would have done the job he/she was supposed to do, this could have been a great book, but it has a problem with too many words.  Additionally, his time travel story (with respect to such things as the butterfly effect) doesn't always make sense.  He tries to make up for this with some lame explanation regarding time threads. King takes you along this long story line trying to prevent the assassination of JFK, and then with no warning, some really dramatic things happen that aren't explained even in his fantasy world.

The last thing I don't like about this story is his hatred of Dallas.  I happen to love Dallas, living there a good portion of my childhood and some of my adult life. Dallas was charming, the city of entrepreneurship, sky scrapers, oil money, helpful people and fast new freeways!  Granted, there was a quiet racial segregation in the city that was typical in the1960's and 70's, but this city was and is full of a free and abundant human spirit where liberty and capitalism prevail.  King personally (in his afterward) judges Dallas as a city of extreme hate.  Heck, if he does this to Dallas, he should pretty much despise Texas, or why not the whole Southern US?

"Some people will protest that I have been excessively hard on the city of Dallas.  I beg to differ...  Dallas was an hateful place.  Confederate flags flew rightsize up...  It is better today, but one still sees signs on Main Street saying HANDGUNS NOT ALLOWED IN THE BAR" King states in his Afterward.

Seems to me that this is a statement about King's political views on the racial issues the whole country struggled with, and, what else, gun control? In a state where gun ownership is common and it is possible to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, it seems pretty reasonable to have a sign like that in a bar.  What is your point, Mr. King?

My recommendation for a great fantasy/horror genre would be Neil Gaiman's American God's.  Now, that was a great book!  However, for a good time, 11/22/63 is just fine.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Deadwood by Pete Dexter

Deadwood This is one crazy dirty book, but then that was what life was like in Deadwood, Dakota Territories, 1876. I picked this book up at the Adams Museum in Deadwood South Dakota, one of the nicest small town museum I have ever been to. The people of Deadwood are proud of their history, and the museum clerk recommended this book as a great view of post civil war life in Deadwood.

This book is divided into five parts, rather than chapters. We meet characters such as Wild Bill Hickok, the famous sharp shooter, Calamity Jane, the well meaning dirty mouthed slutty drunk, Charley Utter, the business man and side kick of Bill, Al Swearingen, the nasty perverted whore-man and saloon owner and many more interesting characters. What makes this book interesting to me is that it actually is historical fiction. Bill was really killed by Jack McCall, and Deadwood really was one dangerous, muddy, wild gold prospecting town that paid real money for severed Indian heads.

If you say that because you saw the cable series Deadwood (it was great) you know the story hence you don't want to read the book, please reconsider. The series was focused on the process of Deadwood becoming an organized city and had different story lines. On the other hand, if you want to meet the whore Lurline Monti Verdi and find out what is up with Charley Utter's "peeter", than this is the book for you.

All seriousness aside (ha!), this isn't the kind of book that would go over in my nice ladies book club. Matter of fact, I tried to share it with a male friend who likes to read Westerns with all the saloon girl antics and gun fights, and he didn't make it past the first few pages. On the other hand, I found it down to earth, funny and just crazy enough to read in my current demented state of mind. You are put into the situations with no pretense of literature. It was surprisingly well written.

And, now for a tasteless taste of Deadwood (the book), and may I say I'm having a heck of a time trying to find something that is not offensive to copy from this text.  You can't make people in the past politically correct, because it is the past? Right?

For context, Nuttall and Mann's Number 10 is a salon, and Bill has taken a liking to Pink Buford's bulldog. Matter of fact the two love each other.

"Charley found Bill back at Nuttall and Mann's Number 10, shooting glasses off the head of Pink Buford's bulldog. The bulldog was fearless. As soon as Bill set a shot glass between the animal's ears, the dog would put his tongue in his mouth so his head wouldn't jiggle, and set dead still while Bill drew one pistol or the other and shot it off. Bill was careful at first, aiming, but the dog proved steady, and by the time Charley came in looking for him, Bill was lining up a left-handed, over-the-shoulder shot in the mirror"

That image makes me smile!  But, be warned, the book is tragic.  Alas, lawlessness brings out the worst in many people.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

It is good to see Katherine back to reading and posting.

Thought I'd just share a short list of books I've read over the last quarter of 2011 and those from current month (January 2012). Note that commas are not entered, author last name first. Added few short comments:

Paretsky Sara Bitter Medicine 9/11 
(her mysteries are good, solid, and captivating)
Rendell Ruth (writing as Barbara Vine) Anna’s Book 9/11 
(an excellent way to write a diary novel)
Walls Jeannette Half Broke Horses 9/11 
(don't enjoy her magazine style all that much)
Hiaasen Carl Sick Puppy 9/11 
(it's cute)
Oates Joyce Carol Broke Heart Blues 9/11 (not the best of her, but she's still a fav author)
Gerritsen Tess The Sinner 10/11 
(don't need any more of her I'm thinking)
Shields Carol The Stone Diaries 10/11 
(this was OK, not what I expected)
Carhart Thad The Piano Shop on the Left Bank 10/11 
(fantastic, but you should be interested in music and especially loving pianos and clever people)
Maxtone-Graham John The Only Way to Cross 10/11 
(coffeetable book, have had it for years, wonderful)
Winspear Jacqueline Messenger of Truth 10/11 
(mystery discussion group, a lot of us don't like her all that well)
Wilde Oscar The Picture of Dorian Gray 10/11 
(great classic, should be in the mood, though)
Rendell Ruth The Vault 10/11 (one of her new ones - just terrific as always)
Leon Donna Drawing Conclusions 11/11 
(her Venice is getting a bit less complex, rather bland)
Clark Robert Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces 11/11 
(non fiction, history, not a good read per se, but lots of information)
Parker T Jefferson Silent Joe 11/11 
(another mystery discussion book, the men loved it)
de Rosnay Tatiana Sarah’s Key 11/11 (intriguing WWII story, group is going to watch the DVD soon. This put me to 52 books read for 2011)
Paretsky Sara Hard Time 11/11 (yes, she is good, still!)
Penzler Otto (ed) Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop 12/11 
(another mystery discussion, short stories, some were really dumb, but if you've been to NYC you can endure)
Plain Belva Whispers 12/11 (skipped a lot in middle - author is not a favorite - I gave away any others of hers I had on my shelf) 

Kraybill Donald R Amish Grace 12/11 
(non fiction, was a disussion book, very revealing)
Allende Isabel House of Spirits, The 12/11 
(she has ups and downs as author, I think I'll leave her alone for a while)
See Lisa Snow Flower and the Secret Fan 12/11 (missed putting on list earlier)
Buchanan Cathy Marie Day The Falls Stood Still, The 12/11 
(KL's gift to me, not what I expected, but an OK read - am passing it around my discussion group friends because of local interest)
Atwood Margaret Handmaid’s Tale, The 12/11 
(really dumb, and I was warned, too)
deMoor Margriet Virtuoso, The 12/11 (also pretty much a waste of time)
Bohjalian Chris The Double Bind 1/12 (I am building up my admiration for him! Such good development of characters and what an interesting topic. I recommend his work)
Bragg Rick Ava's Man 1/12 (such well-written tales, biography of his grandfather)
Grafton Sue V is for Vengeance 1/12 (not at her best)
Sayers Dorothy L The Nine Tailors 1/12 (I thought this would be long and tedious, but it sped right along and was wonderful. What a classic of the English genre)
Peters Elizabeth The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits 1/12 (a waste of last night it goes in trash, what was I thinking. Oh, cute cover.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

The Color of Magic

This book was a trip; a true psychedelic weird adventure. The first in a series of 39 Discworld books (Wikipedia notes as of September 2011), Pratchett introduces us to his wacky flat word that rides on four continent sized elephants that are on the back of Great A'Tuin the giant turtle that lumbers through space (hopefully not to meet a mate anytime soon). Yes, this is totally weird, but I'm sure there is a parallel with Earth that could be exposed to meteors, crashing planets, exploding stars or flips in polarity. Prachett pokes fun at us in clever ways through this wacky collection of four story-chapters.

Rincewind, the wizard, kicked out of wizard school for looking in forbidden magic books, has been forced (under threat of death by city's mayor, or "Patrician") to guide Twoflower, the tourist, through his scrappy home town, Ankh-Morpork. The destruction of the town unfolds as Twoflower introduces incredibe wealth in the manner of tips of gold coins and inn-sewer-ants policies into impoverished Morpork. The book is divided into four parts, each a new outrageous experiment in humor-fantasy.

If you read this work of very strange art, laugh and enjoy every word. The new vocabulary may on first glance be words of nonsense, but they were chosen to be words that are similar to words you do know. Morpork, for example, is More Pork? , Perhaps the word Rincewind makes you think of someone as hard to pin down as rinsed wind? This book is written for the strange by the strange, so hop on board for dragon rides and magic!

This wasn't a popular discussion book in our group. Matter of fact, I think there were some really unhappy people with this choice, so for your regular woman's book club, I would steer clear. However, if you like fantasy and have never tried this author, you should read one of his books. My guess is that Mark Twain would have loved these books, due to the incredible amount of parody, imagination, and no-nonsense nonsense. A web search indicates that good choices would be Night Watch, Small Gods and Going Postal (which I read and really really liked).

I would also like to add that this author has won awards for his discworld novels, and was also a best selling UK author in the 1990's.