Hold the handbasket

Because I spend much of my time poring over unpublished manuscripts, my timetable for reading recent releases can be erratic. Sometimes I’ll read a galley and get a jump on the books of the season, but more frequently I play catch up with the bestseller lists.  Only a year or so after it hit the NYT list and months after Stacey pointed to it as an example of superb nonfiction, I got hold of the paperback edition of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the book got hold of me. “Gripping” is rarely a word associated with narrative science, but Skloot’s book is powerful, provocative and moving, and I stayed up until the wee hours to finish it. I’ll leave the reviews to the reviewers, adding only an “amen” to each rave, but in TILOHL, I found not only a tremendous literary achievement, but also an  occasion to bask in the happy feeling brought on when Good Things Happen to Good Books. I don’t mean to go all Polyanna here, but we are all involved in an industry renowned for its dire self-assessments and apocalyptic predictions (here in Bookworld, The End is always near) so it feels especially nice to encounter a project that signals that the publishing business is not so bankrupt, moribund or rigged as it is often accounted. Rebecca Skloot’s book was obviously a monumental effort, a ten-year project underwritten with credit cards and student loans as she attempted to reconstruct the life of a woman whose cells—taken and used without her consent—have contributed to most every medical advance of the past 50 years. A worthy subject, certainly, but also, given Skloot’s close involvement with the Lacks family, a messy and unpredictable tale that is not easily folded into a single, cogent book. That this richly deserving read about a raft of difficult subjects—cancer, biology, race relations, biomedical ethics, just to name a few—made it to press (this is a story in itself, involving three publishing houses and many editors) and has been such a resounding success might offer a moment’s respite to the literary pessimist/eschatologist in each of us. Surely we’re not headed to hell in a handbasket if books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks can triumph.

Are there any books that you’ve read recently that, even for a moment, restored your faith in the book business?

7 Responses to Hold the handbasket

  1. Glad to hear a glowing review – the book has been on my to-read list for awhile now. The whole story is fascinating to me.

  2. Michael G-G says:

    I recently read, and loved, Trent Reedy’s Words in the Dust about a young girl in Afghanistan with a cleft lip. I applaud the publishing industry for still taking on these kinds of books amid the flood of vampires, werewolves, demons, angels, demon-angels (I first wrote “demon-agents.” I’m sure such creatures don’t exist.)

    I have Rebecca Skloot on my TBR list, too.

  3. Ryan Field says:

    “Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” by Jaime Ford. The way people were treated and put into camps during WWII is handled well. And it’s a nice love story, too.

  4. Lance Parkin says:

    In the narrative science field: Nim Chimpsky, by Elizabeth Hess.

    Noam Chomsky asserted that only humans were capable of language. So a team of scientists trained a chimp, who they called Nim Chimpsky, in sign language. What happened next was extraordinary, and to cut a long story short Chomsky could not have been more wrong. And Nim lived with people, learned to understood concepts like his own birthday, and … then the funding for the project was cut.

    It’s one of those books that flips around some of your fundamental assumptions about how the world works.

  5. I’m reading George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol, by Linda O. McMurry, 1981, just came across this passage today, while taking a mini-mini break at work…

    “Gandhi’s religious crusade of passive resistance to English rule in India physically weakened him, so one of his supporters came to Tuskegee in 1929 to get a vegetarian diet from Carver […] In 1935 he was again approached by another Gandhi supporter […] Carver was delighted to receive a personal card of appreciation from Gandhi and replied he prayed for Gandhi’s success “in this marvelous work you are doing.””

    I liked this passage so much, even though I accidentally deleted my first comment, I retyped the whole thing again! Another oldie-but-goodie from 1996, Nobel Prize Women in Science, by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne.

  6. Lisa Ahn says:

    I have The Immortal Life . . on my to-be-read list as well, and I’m glad to see another endorsement. The best book I’ve read recently is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. Brilliant writing, structure, characters, development. I can’t praise it enough. I love that it’s non-traditional and mind-stretching in so many ways, and, at the same time, has done so well. Loved it!

  7. gmf says:

    I was also behind the curve when I finally got around to reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Exquisite. The most gorgeous fiction I’ve read in years. As I was reading, I kept thinking about how it was so different from what I think of as being marketable fiction. No vampires, no pricey shoes, and most importantly no pandering at all. It sucked me in, but then made me work to get the full reward of her writing. It did actually restore my faith a little in the publishing world.

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has been on my “to read” list for awhile, you just bumped it up a notch. (Though when you abbreviated it as ILOHL I puzzled for a long time trying to figure out if this was yet another txt sentence I never heard of. :-)

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