I am, in general, a fiction reader. That’s because I like a good story. The other day I was recommending popular non-fiction to someone and I realized that the non-fiction I love also tells great stories. This is particularly true of two books I have enjoyed recently – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecka Skloot and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. These books couldn’t be more different, but both are well worth a read.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecka Skloot
Skloot tells the story of HeLa cells – the first immortal human cells – and their importance in the history of cell culture and medical research. She also tells the fascinating story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cancer cells HeLa came from, and her family’s struggles over that last 50 years with HeLa’s legacy. Rather than being a work of medical history (though it does have elements of that) this is a story about a family and the society they inhabit. This story revels profoundly troubling things about American society, both in the mid-20th century and now. Skloot is herself very much present in the story, as during the course of researching the book she developed a strong relationship with Lacks’ daughter Deborah. This presence leads the reader into the story on a more intimate level than one normally finds in non-fiction. It is a remarkable book that has justly be much praised and I recommend it highly.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
I am not now, nor have I ever been, particularly interested in mountain climbing. But so many people raved about this book that I gave it a shot. It’s freaking amazing. Krakauer was climbing Mt. Everest with a guided expedition in 1996 in order to write a magazine story about the experience, when a storm on the top of the mountain led to the deaths of 12 of his fellow climbers. Krakauer takes an unflinching look at everything surrounding the expedition, and the story he tells is mesmerizing. Krakauer sees the disaster not as a freak accident, but the result of many factors, including problems inherent in the commercialization of Everest. As in Skloot’s book, the writer is very much present in the narrative, in this case because he was a part of the events that the book investigates. Krakauer’s narrative is in some ways a confession, as he relates the details of the day and night at the top of the world when he survived and so many others died. Give this fascinating story a try, even if you have no interest in mountain climbing.
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It’s been a while…but I’m back! And I have been reading a ridiculous number of graphic novels lately. In no particular order, here are two graphic novels that you should immediately run out to your nearest comic book store (or library) and find.
Zombies Calling by Faith Erin Hicks
Zombies invade the university of Western Ontario and Joss and her friends must follow the rules of zombie movies to survive. Fun and funny with a great twist ending. Hicks has a beautiful drawing style (see also Brain Camp, The War at Ellesmere) and knows how to marry text and images together to tell a complete story – in other words, she knows how to make comics.
Prime Baby by Gene Luen Yang
Thaddeus K. Fong thinks his little sister is an alien. Actually, she is only a gateway through which aliens travel. Seriously. Yang is one of my favourite comic writers out there, and has been since I read American Born Chinese. He writes the best tween/teen boys in the universe and he knows how to make comic books. If you like graphic novels, you should read this. if you don’t like graphic novels you should read this (after which, you will like graphic novels).
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eReaders for children’s picture books are hitting the market. As anyone who has read with a child will tell you, it involves a lot of page turning, page touching and occasionally page tasting. The difference in the eReading experience for children will be much more obvious than it is for adults – I look forward to seeing how this plays out.
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This collection of short stories by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat lives up to its considerable hype. I love short stories as a literary form and I love writers who know what to do with them. Danticat writes about women in Haiti, and the connection between the individual characters and the place they live – a place that is almost overwhelming to read about. These stories are something new, something that I haven’t seen before, and that’s really exciting. It is often said that the more specific an individual’s story is, the more universally resonant it becomes, because in that specificity exists the individual’s humanity. Danticat’s work proves this yet again. From the girl whose mother is jailed for witchcraft to the woman whose husband steals a hot air balloon, to the woman who finds a dead baby in the street and decides to keep it, Danticat creates profoundly human women in her stories. She’s amazing. Highly recommended.
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The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
I have always preferred Atwood’s short fiction to her novels, but this is undoubtedly her masterpiece. Atwood tells the story of Iris Chase Griffen, who is coming to the end of her life and needs to set the record straight. Iris does this by telling the story of her early life, which is bound up in the story of her sister Laura who died at 25 and posthumously became a celebrated author. Iris’s tale is interspersed with Laura’s one novel, The Blind Assassin, which tells the story of a pair of secret lovers. When these lovers meet in squalid apartments, they tell each other the story of the planet Zycron and the fabled city of Sakiel-Norn, which exist in another dimension of space. As we move deeper into the tale, we understand that this is all one story, broken into facets. Atwood’s writing is exquisite throughout, but never more so than when constructing the pulp scifi story the lovers tell. Laura is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever come across and Iris is so complete that you almost forget she isn’t real. If you like Atwood, read this and enjoy. If you think you don’t like Atwood, read this and become a fan.
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Dorothy Parker Stories by Dorothy Parker
This edition includes all the stories from two previous collections Laments for the Living and After Such Pleasures. These 24 short stories are little peaks into the minds, lives and conversations of various jazz age denizens including aging party girls, cheating husbands, young lovers, horse-faced nurses and society ladies. Dorothy Parker deserves every bit of her reputation as a legendary wit – my favourite story in the collection is A Young Woman in Green Lace, in which the title character finds it difficult to readjust to New York after spending three weeks in Paris. These are just perfect, beautiful, clever, heartbreaking gems of stories.
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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
It’s New York in the 1870s and Archer Newland has just become engaged to May Welland, his ideal woman, when her cousin the Countess Olenska arrives in New york fleeing from a bad marriage. Meeting the Countess forces Archer to re-evaluate everything he believes about the rigid social rules of the New York aristocracy and the life he had intended for himself. A gorgeously written love story about what we owe to ourselves and what we owe to others, about loving the goodness of a person more than wanting them, and about the prisons we build for ourselves. The story is only outshone by the atmosphere – Wharton paints old New York like a canvas. Five Stars.
The 1993 Martin Scorsese directed movie is well worth a watch, too. He recreates the atmosphere perfectly.
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