Blog Archives

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

henriettaThis is a book that everyone was talking about, and I missed out on.  Picking it up at a thrift store a few weeks ago, I designated it my “road trip read”, and then promptly finished it the night before embarking on a 10 day road trip.

You probably haven’t heard the name Henrietta Lacks, but you may have heard of HeLa cells, which are used around the world for a variety of research purposes. They’ve been to space. Seriously. In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” author Rebecca Skloot sets out to uncover the story of the dead African-American woman whose cells are still a multi-billion dollar, worldwide industry even as her surviving family members are living in near-poverty.  Part mystery, part biography, and part study of the history of medical ethics, this book is dynamite and will hold you riveted until the final pages. It taught me more than a few things I didn’t know about the history of medicine and the seemingly-shady history of medical ethics, especially when the victims are poor, minority, or mentally challenged.  This one’ll be on my bookcase for a long time.



“Savage Inequalities” by Jonathan Kozol – AND “Lighting their fires” by Rafe Esquith

savage As a parent, and as a homeschooing mom-to-be, I’ve found myself reading a lot about educational theories, the education system in general, and ways to encourage kids to want to learn.

Unfortunately, I also live in the city of Chicago, which is currently presided over by a mayor who slashes school budgets to the point where our CPS schools have to have toilet paper drives, while at the same time giving millions of dollars to build a new stadium for DePaul University and a hot dog company.

Yeah, the state of the American education system is pretty terrible.

Jonathan Kozol’s landmark book, “Savage Inequalities,” shed light on this in the smartest way possible; by actually visiting some of the poorest, most depressing schools in the country, and comparing them to rich and vibrant schools that are often only a few miles away.  Is it due to the underlying racism that still exists in America that predominately black and latino schools are in terrible shape, while largely white schools in wealthy suburbs are flourishing? Who knows. It’s the truth, though.  Kozol’s book is remarkable, and makes the reader angry for all the right reasons.  Our children, regardless of skin color, economic class, or location of residence, should all have access to education – and education in a safe, clean  building with the necessary supplies like pens and paper and, you know, toilet paper.

lightingtheirfiresRafe Esquith’s “Lighting their Fires” made me angry for another reason.  Esquith, an award-winning teacher in L.A., is best known for teaching his inner-city kids Shakespeare, and achieving remarkable results.  His most famous book, “Teach like your hair is on fire,” is an inspiring read, and one I’m glad to have read and enjoyed.  However, since reading that, I’ve come to realize that his books are often filled with an awful lot of his patting himself on the back.  In “Lighting their Fires,” he takes a group of students to see a Dodgers game (to which they got free tickets because they’re so remarkable, thanks to Esquith) and the behavior of the baseball fans around them serves as the catalyst for Esquith to sound off on his methods – many of which were already explained in previous books.  “Lighting their Fires,” frankly, annoyed me.  I plan to expose my son to great literary works, baseball, and the whole world – but I’m okay if I don’t meet celebrities and get book deals for doing so.  I applaud Mr. Esquith for making a difference, but it’s starting to come off as humble-bragging.

Kudos, however, to any book or show or person that draws attention to the state of the American Education System. (The documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” is amazing.  Just throwing that out there.) When something is broke, fix it. It’s time.

“1 Dead in Attic” by Chris Rose

1-dead-in-atticI’m often drawn to dark non-fiction, so Chris Rose’s “1 Dead in Attic,” about the months after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his beloved city of New Orleans, was a pretty obvious choice for something I’d read and be riveted by.

Rose, a reporter for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, wrote frankly and with minute honesty about the situations and feelings he experienced in the days and months after the massive hurricane in his column, and his writings are collected in this volume.  From accounts of people fleeing the city – and some, including a cat lady, sticking it out – to restaurants and families trying to get going again, every word of Rose’s writing is truthful, hopeful, cranky, and bitter (particularly when he addresses certain politicians.)  In a time where walking past a dead body stops bothering people, there are still beautiful moments to find.  It’s that kind of book – often hard to read, but worth continuing.

As a portrait of the aftermath of unthinkable tragedy, “1 Dead in Attic” should be on everyone’s bookcase.  Piece by piece, board by board, inch by inch, the city of New Orleans moves forward and back to a new normal.  This book is a stunning picture of the survival of a city that refuses to give up.  I was fascinated, and I devoured every page.

“Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment” by Sandra Steingraber

downstreamIn her epic book, “Living Downstream,” biologist and poet Sandra Steingraber picks up where Rachel Carson’s landmark book on environmental change caused by humans, “Silent Spring,” left off and further making the case that the things we greedily shove into our environment can have, and have had, negative effects on human life.

Steingraber has battled cancer since her twenties, and so have other members of her (adoptive) family from rural Illinois.  Obviously, this wasn’t genetic, so this got her wondering, and so she’s delved into the higher rates of cancer in industrial areas, and areas where the most chemicals and other toxins are created and released – and the spike in this correlation since World War Two. (Many chemicals were developed for warfare during WW2, then were repurposed as pesticides afterward.  All the data shows the surge in cancers and other diseases in humans and animals after that time.  Charming, huh?)

Steingraber writes of her own personal battles with cancer, as well as the battles of many MANY others, beautifully.  She points out hard truths and asks tough questions.

“As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I am grateful that my father did not die in a typhus epidemic in Naples.  But as a survivor of cancer, as a native of Tazewell County, and as a member of the most poisoned generation to come of adult age, I am sorry that cooler heads did not prevail in the calm prosperity of peacetime, when careful consideration and a longer view on public health were once again permissible and necessary.  I am sorry that no one asked, ‘Is this the industrial path we want to continue along?  Is this the most reasonable way to rid our dogs of fleas and our trees of gypsy moths?  Is this the safest material for a baby’s pacifier or for a tub of margarine?’ Or that those who did ask such questions were not heard.”

“Living Downstream” is a hard book to read, despite the fact that it’s well written, compelling and actually quite lovely.  It’s a book that will make you think twice about going outside, and will definitely open your eyes to the dangers in the world around us — and how, despite scientific evidence, the companies and governments with the money are going to do whatever they want unless someone stops them…


“Second Reading” by Johnathan Yardley

secondI picked up Johnathan Yardley’s “Second Reading” during what I consider a BookNerd’s pilgrimage to Mecca – a visit to BookPeople in Austin, TX.  BookPeople is such a fantastic bookstore, I can’t imagine a setting more perfect for booklovers.

Now that THAT is off my chest.

“Second Reading” is a perfect book for booklovers.

In 2003, Washington Post columnist Johnathan Yardley began a series where he would re-read a neglected, forgotten, or otherwise faded from the forefront book and write his impressions of said book.  It was a hit.  In “Second Reading,” Yardley collects a bunch of these past columns regarding books both known and unknown.  Yardley loves books, and – bless him! – not just snooty books that are loved by critics.  He likes popular things, too, which is always an endearing trait.  Anyone who likes “Treasure Island” is fine by me.

From “The Catcher in the Rye” to Moss Hart’s autobiography of his life in the American Theater, every book Yardley discusses in his candid and forward way sounds utterly fascinating.

The book made me add the following titles to my own “to-read” list.

  • The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The House on Coliseum Street, by Shirley Ann Grau
  • Revellie in Washington, by Margaret Leech

If you like books about books, “Second Reading” is pretty grand.

This one’ll be hanging around on my bookcase.


“The Dangerous World of Butterflies” by Peter Laufer, PhD


(Happy 2013, everyone!  I’ve officially begun my “not buying any new/used books until I’ve read all the books I own and haven’t read” project, so here goes!)

Peter Laufer’s “The Dangerous World of Butterflies” is a book full of wonderment for the reader.  In these pages, he takes us behind the pretty colors of butterflies as a sweet and magical insect, and delves into things like illegal butterfly trade, the battle between purists and the commercial breeders who sell them for things like wedding releases, and even the sort of creepier aspects of butterfly life.

Did you know that male butterflies will sit on a pupa that is a few days away from hatching a female butterfly, and will puncture the skin of the pupa to mate with the female who hasn’t even hatched into a butterfly yet?

Me neither. Geez! The things you learn from books.

The story behind the book is almost as good as the book itself.  Laufer is a journalist whose previous books include works on Iraq and life in prison.  It was at a speaking event when he made a quip about his next book being about “butterflies and flowers” that triggered the research behind this incredibly smart book.  He was invited to a butterfly preserve in Nicaragua, and was off and running.

The most interesting parts of the book include the story of a Fish and Wildlife officer who wound up capturing the “world’s most wanted butterfly smuggler,” and a section dealing with how the creation of a border wall along the Rio Grande will be devastating to butterfly habitats. The book is pro-conservation, and Laufer becomes a sort of unintentional advocate for butterfly preservation.   There are a couple duller segments, but nothing that made me want to stop reading.  (Also, for the Chicagoans, Laufer visits the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum butterfly haven, which is a lovely place I’ve been to several times and will never stop marveling at.)

For those of you who dig science and a good non-fiction read, this might be the book for you.  It’s made me look at butterflies in a different light.

“America’s Cheapest Family Gets you Right on the Money” by Steve & Annette Economides

Bless Steve & Annette Economides’ money-saving hearts.  They’ve embraced the nickname,” America’s Cheapest Family,” and taken it all the way to the bank. (Money pun.  See how I did that?)

With books, a website, audio seminar recordings, and kits to help you get your family on the “cheap” track, they’ve forged a business out of saving money, which Americans are hands-down terrible at.

Regarding the book — It’s broken down into sections for how to save on everything from cars to clothes to prescription drugs.  Most of the tips are fairly common sense (There’s a huge emphasis on second-hand clothes/stores, which seems obvious) but there are a few truly clever nuggets to be found, mainly in the system they used to teach their five kids about money.  Also, they emphasize more planning things to avoid impulsive shopping/spending.

There are a few “WTF” moments, though.  I can’t be speaking only for myself when I say that the suggestion of purchasing a second-hand slow-cooker to cook your meals in your hotel room while on vacation is a little weird, and is it legal to purchase your prescription drugs in Canada, regardless of the savings?

Still, if you’re looking for a book to aid you in getting your family finances on track, this isn’t a bad place to start.  Kudos to the Economides for their money-saving savvy, and for turning it into (I presume) a profitable business.

FYI — I borrowed this book from the Chicago Public Library, which is one of the ways the Economides’ encourage people to save.

On that note, it’s National Library Card Month.  Do you have yours?


“American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to end Welfare” by Jason DeParle

Sometimes, a book DEMANDS to be read.

“American Dream” quite literally fell off the bookcase at Open Books in it’s demand to be read.  So I bought it, and I read it in 24 hours because I simply could not put it down.

Is there a more hot-button issue than welfare? Okay, abortion will probably light people up just as well, but welfare is one of those topics that everyone has an opinion on — and they’re always those opinions that cannot be reconsidered and are set in stone.

“American Dream” should be a required read before forming any of those opinions.

Did you know that when the program we now refer to as “Welfare” began, it was aimed at white stay at home mothers who found themselves widowed?  That’s a far cry from where the system is now — viewed by many as a dependent class. (And, in the words of some current Presidential candidates, people who view themselves as victims.  Oh, politics.)  Under the leadership of Bill Clinton in the 90s, there was a massive drive to try and get people receiving these benefits back to work and off the rolls.  It’s an incredibly intricate story of the U.S. government at all levels trying something and succeeding (Oregon), and failing (Mississippi), and doing better, and doing worse.

Things are not cut and dry.  Or black and white.

DeParle does something genius with this book.  While he’s relating the history of the Clinton Administration’s efforts to get welfare recipients back to work — and the substantial bureaucratic screw-ups to follow — he also puts the story on the backs of three real-life women/mothers who are on-again-off-again receivers of welfare benefits;  hardworking Angie, holding out for a man in jail Jewell, and Opal with the drug problem.  If you can’t find some sympathy for at least one of the three of them, I’d question your heart.

“American Dream…” is a really powerful piece of non-fiction writing about an issue that’s still being hotly debated in American politics.  If you like this sort of read, this one is a must-read.

“Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer

This is officially my least favorite book by Jon Krakauer, who I would ordinarily say is one of my favorite authors.  He’s a journalist/writer who normally has an uncanny way of bringing true stories to life in such well-written detail that you’d almost believe you were reading a novel.  His “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air” are two of the most riveting reads I’ve ever had the good pleasure to encounter, but “Under the Banner of Heaven” is another story.

In 1984, two brothers (acting, they believed, on God’s orders) murdered a mother and her infant daughter in cold blood.  They were Mormons, and the case was one of many things that brought the dark side of the Mormon faith into the limelight.

Mormonism, known largely in America for the whole polygamy thing, is a huge religion.  Heck, we even have a Presidential candidate who is a Mormon.  However, like many religions, some people take things/their beliefs way too far.  My problem with “Under the Banner of Heaven” is that, while the polygamy and murder case parts of the book are fascinating, the rest of it – a detailed history of the Mormon religion – was pretty dull.  It felt like I was reading a textbook.  So I started skimming those parts, which to me doesn’t equal a strong read.

Mr. Krakauer is awesome, and I realize not everyone can be amazing all the time, but “Under the Banner of Heaven” was disappointing to me.  Good thing I got it for $1.o0 at a used book store, right? Read “Into the Wild” instead to get a better idea of the power of this gifted non-fiction writer, but this book isn’t worth your time.

“The Lost City of Z” by David Gramm

David Gramm’s “The Lost City of Z” is part historical narrative and part pure-lunatic journalism.

In 1925, an expedition led by Colonel Fawcett headed into the Amazon searching for the fabled City of Z, more commonly known as El Dorado.  This team was never heard from again.  Many more expeditions followed them, hoping to learn the truth about their disappearance, and many of those expeditions disappeared (or simply died) along the way of the various dangers of the Amazon — ferocious tribes, strange diseases, starvation, pirahna…

So of course writer David Gramm decided to go into the Amazon and investigate this decades-old mystery.

Because that always works out so well.

If nothing else, he’s a thorough lunatic.  Before embarking on his own quest, Gramm details the life story of Fawcett and his history as a famous explorer. (This dude had been into the Amazon many times previously.) Gramm also gets his facts straight and does every bit of research he can on where this gleaming magical city might be.

Also, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shows up? Win.

Oh, and Fawcett’s wife is a fascinating character who could be a book all by herself.

Does Fawcett reach his goal? Does Gramm?  Like I can tell you that here.  All I’ll say is that if you’d like a pretty conclusive answer to WTF happened to this 1925 expedition, you should read “The City of Z.”

Also, if there’s any part of you that’s ever suffered from Wanderlust, for this book reads as a great travelogue.

It’s also darn good non-fiction, and pretty great journalism.

Yeah, I liked it.