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Tag Archives: nonfiction

“The Good Daughter”

The reading world is now my oyster–I’ve finished up my reading for this year’s Notable Books List! And a great list it was.

But now I can read whatever I want–and I chose “The Good Daughter” simply by searching on “memoir” as a keyword in our catalog, and sorting by date for a recent one.

This is Jasmin Darznik’s story of her mother’s life, and a whole part of that life that was unknown to Jasmin until she came upon a photograph in her mother’s belongings, clearly a wedding picture of her mother (then very young) and a man who was not Jasmin’s father.

Jasmin knew that she had come to America from Iran when she was three, with her mother and German father. She grew up an American girl.

Although her mother at first refused to respond to Jasmin’s questions, eventually she sent Jasmin a series of cassette tapes telling about her childhood and young womanhood.

This period of time in Iran, the 1950’s and 1960’s, saw great change and transition. Some families remained very conservative in their expectations of women, insisting on veils and staying mostly at home, while other women wore Western dress and held career jobs. What Darznik does very well is use her mother’s story to describe that period of uneasy “progress.”

But in the end, it is her mother’s story, and I enjoyed it immensely despite her sometimes bleak circumstances. Darznik tells the story well, filling in information where necessary, letting her mother often speak for herself. I came to both love and hate the characters she drew.

I came away with a better sense of the social history of Iran, and with much admiration for her mother, who endured so much, and who continued persevering in America.

I’ll recommend this to many of my reading friends–the rewarding story, the interesting setting, and the issues of families generally and families reacting to social upheaval in particular, will gratify many different readers. This would be an excellent choice for a book group, too.

Another Notable–“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

I’d heard quite a bit about “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and so was pleased to see it in the nonfiction portion of this year’s Notable Books list.

Rebecca Skloot tell the story of Mrs. Lacks, who became immortal when shortly before her death in 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took tissue samples from a tumor on her cervix. Researchers were able to get the cells from that tissue to reproduce phenomenally. The cells, known as HeLa Cells (the first two letters of her first and last names) became a kind of medical commodity, since researchers needed human cells on which to perform all kinds of research. The family didn’t know, and were never compensated for them.

Skloot’s book is as much about the Lacks family as about the cells. At the time the cells were taken, doctors wouldn’t have thought twice about taking cells without permission, and especially wouldn’t have given consideration to taking cells from an African American. Lacks entered the hospital through a separate door, drank from a separate fountain, and probably got less care, than white people did.

The Lacks family didn’t know about the cells until much later. They received a lot of misinformation, that coupled with their own lack of scientific understanding to interpret what they were told. Much of Skloot’s story centers on their attempts to understand what happened. In particular, Lacks’s daughter Deborah takes center stage, in middle age when Skloots began the book.

This book meshes well with another Notable nonfiction, “The Warmth of Other Suns” about the Great Migration. Henrietta Lacks ended up in Baltimore because the men of the family found work there, moving north from Clover, Virginia.

Skloot successfully weaves together the scientific information with the story of this family. She creates a strong narrative thread.

I’m recommending this to many readers, those who enjoy a good story, nonfiction readers who especially appreciate a good story that actually happened, and to students of our American culture.

A Nonfiction Notable–“The Last Stand” by Nathaniel Philbrick

I heard Nathaniel Philbrick speak in June, and so I was especially interested in reading his “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn,” one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s Notable Books List.

The Last Stand presents a daunting narrative–the history of US treatment of Native Americans, especially those of the Northern Plains, of Chief Sitting Bull, of General Custer, of the officers under Custer’s command, of the thousands of people who were in Sitting Bull’s village along the Little Big Horn, of all of the movements of officers and Native people.

I’m not familiar with the details of the Last Stand, and found it difficult to keep up with descriptions of the military movements. My guess is that those who’ve studied it previously would not have difficulty here.

As a general reader, my main complaint is that I didn’t sense a strong enough narrative thread. Philbrick has so many people and actions to describe that it was hard sometimes to stay connected to the story.

That said, I learned a lot. Among Philbrick’s themes are the remarkable jealousies in Custer’s officer corps, the clear sense of an impending “last stand” for Sitting Bull’s people given the demise of buffalo herds, and the overall impact of a flamboyant personality such as Custer’s at the helm. While Philbrick includes the narratives of Sitting Bull and many Sioux people, I sensed the story as primarily Custer’s. And even in the middle of the battle, people were beginning to shape how that story would be told.

I was reflecting on what Philbrick said in regard to writing this book, and I was especially struck by his descriptions of studying the battlefield from horseback, getting a sense of how a person of the time would have seen the land.

I’ll recommend this to people who enjoy American history, especially history of the Plains, of Native Americans, or of the nineteenth century.

“The Warmth of Other Suns” another Notable

Whew! I almost made it through the month without noting that I’d read a book. Now that I’m primarily reading the nonfiction from this year’s Notable Books list, I’m moving much more slowly.

I find that I need a different kind of concentration for reading nonfiction. I do best with them when I have early mornings free on weekends–and those were rare in June.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson reads quite quickly for nonfiction, due to Wilkerson’s storytelling ability. She follows the paths of three African Americans who move from the South to the North in the early 20th century. The three stand in for millions who made this trip. Using extensive interviews Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster, she tells what they left, why they left, and what happened after that. She rarely loses the narrative thread. I found each person to be as interesting as the others.

The larger themes emerge, of triumphing over adversity, of mustering courage beyond expectations, of feeling like an outsider everywhere, of taking pride in surviving. The remarkable danger and indignity that everyday life represented for African Americans in the South colors each journey. Each person’s various choices in career, in marriage, in leisure, shape their migration story.

Wilkerson is a professor of journalism whose own parents were part of the Great Migration, moving from Georgia to southern Virginia to Washington, D.C. She adroitly combines interviews with other information, setting each context well without losing a sense, ultimately, of story.

I finished this book with a sense that I knew my country’s history better. I’ll recommend this to others who enjoy social history and readers who seek out others’ stories.

Yes! I Have Read the One Book One Lincoln Finalists

A good time was had by all on the dock of The Mill in the Haymarket Monday morning when the three finalists for One Book One Lincoln 2011 were announced. Yes, I’ve read them all.

And thanks to the fine people at the Mill who hosted this event as a benefit for the Foundation for Lincoln City Libraries, one of my favorite organizations, after all.

I’d written about “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers earlier. It’s nonfiction, about a Syrian immigrant to New Orleans, a man who decides to stay in the city through Katrina. I confess–I really liked this book when I read it, and I’ve recommended it to a variety of people who also enjoyed it. And regular readers of this blog know that I am on a campaign for America to Read More Nonfiction. So “Zeitoun” was a natural for me.

I finished “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese on Sunday May 29, sitting in the car during a rainy spell while we were camping at Victoria Springs up by Anselmo, Nebraska. And…I liked this one, too. A novel, not that we’ll hold that against it. Told by a man named Marion, who looks back on a life in Ethiopia, one of twins born to an Indian nun who dies during childbirth, fathered by a white doctor of British Indian background who abandons them. Marion and his brother, Shiva, are raised by loving adoptive parents and become medical men themselves. Swirling about this story are the dangerous politics of Africa, the impact of grinding poverty, betrayal by a woman he loves, success in medicine, and always, being a twin. I’m afraid that many general readers will be put off by some fairly graphic medical procedures, but I also think that the novel holds rewards that overcome those difficult scenes.

And two weeks ago, I enjoyed a Passionate Reader Jackpot–starting and finishing “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss all in one weekend. A little like “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks which was a One Book One Lincoln selection in recent years, this novel is about a book. The story’s a little complicated, on the one hand about a Jewish man who escaped from Europe during the World War II era, ending up in New York. On the other hand, there’s a girl whose father has died, whose mother has found meaning in a book called “The History of Love.” That girl, Alma, goes in search of the book’s author. Eventually the stories intertwine. There are some absolutely lovely aspects to this book, in the ways that Krauss uses small gestures to show big things, and in her constant return to the power of hope.

So…read them! And tell me what you think. And be sure to vote for your favorite before voting ends on July 31.