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Archive for the ‘nonfiction’ Category

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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Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont

This was an impulse buy some years ago that has been gathering dust on a bookcase. I finally got around to reading it, and it was terrific. The book is a collection of short biographies/essays on the literary contributions of a diverse group of 20th century women writers, including Gertrude Stein, Hannah Arendt, Anais Nin, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorris Lessing, Ayn Rand and others. The essays were universally fascinating (Rand was slightly less of a kook than I had thought, Margaret Mitchell, Arendt and Lessing were every but as problematic in their personal lives as Hemingway, Eliot and Pound) and I have added at least a dozen books to my list of things to read right now. The writing is sharp, it moves at a clip and no more than 30 pages are devoted to any one author. Loved it. Five Stars.

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