Book Club News

Kate Larson, Book Club Coordinator

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Book Reviews for Book Clubs

Take These Two and Call Me in the Morning
Two extraordinary books are coming in paperback this March, both centered on science and medicine but really about much, much bigger issues. One fiction, one nonfiction, both beg to be read and talked about.  If your club relishes digging into social issues, moral conundrums, raw human emotion, ethical considerations and “what would you do” scenarios, these overflow with questions and ideas to examine and discuss.

So Much for ThatThe first is So Much for That a work of fiction by Lionel Shriver, author of bestsellers The Post-Birthday World and We Need to Talk about Kevin (winner of the Orange Prize.) The main character, Shepherd Knacker (Shep) has long been saving and dreaming of taking his family and moving to an island off the coast of Africa where they will live a simple, back to nature life.  When he comes home to report to Glynnis, his wife of 26 years, that at last they’ve saved enough to fulfill the dream, Glynnis has something of her own to report.  She has just been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare and virulent cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. She will be needing Shep’s health insurance so no one is going anywhere. Hence the title.

Glynnis may well be one of the most unlikable characters ever. In spite of her terminal illness, it’s impossible to muster any sympathy for her, particularly her treatment of Shep, who is clearly a mensch.  Likewise, Shep’s best friend Jackson, who has multiple problems of his own, is hard to like. He and his wife Carol are parents of a severely handicapped child who requires constant medical attention and hospitalizations. Frequently launching into endless soliloquies full of preachy rants against “the system”, Jackson divides Americans into two halves: those who play by the rules and those who just play the rules, one half leeching off the other. He refers to these groups alternately as Patsies and Parasites, Freeloaders and Fall Guys, Saps and Spongers, Lackeys and Loafers. His raging metaphorical impotence becomes a reality in a particularly gruesome subplot. I didn’t find a specific political agenda in this novel—the Left and Right are given equal skewering.

Since both families are coping with serious and expensive medical care issues, the subject of health insurance inevitably becomes a focus. Both families are covered by employer-provided group health insurance but as they navigate the world of co-pays, deductibles, caps, out of network, clinical trials etc. it becomes obvious that the real question isn’t health insurance or who provides it. The real question is:  What is a life worth, in dollars, assuming financial resources are not infinite? Heavy stuff. Any good  news? Well, Ms. Shriver manages to pull off a surprising but happy ending to all this.

So Much for That
was one of the five finalists for the 2010 National Book Award. It is a powerful story, filled with unlikeable characters, raw, painful honesty, overblown preachy rages and best of all, endless discussion topics. It’s the kind of novel that sticks with you and engenders strong emotions and opinions you’ll want to talk about. I guarantee a lively meeting.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe nonfiction book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, whose ten plus years of dedicated and painstaking research, fact-checking and interviews pays off big-time in this dramatic and moving true story about a woman who will live forever.

Born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, Henrietta Lacks was taken to her grandfather’s house in Clover, Virginia at age four after her mother died giving birth to her tenth child. Her grandfather and other family members still farmed the tobacco fields their ancestors had worked as slaves. Henrietta eventually married her cousin David, had children, and all of them continued to plant, harvest, dry and sell their crop at tobacco auctions. David, Henrietta and their children moved to Baltimore in 1941 for better paying jobs in the now booming steel industry.  Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 and this is where the story of her immortality begins. During her first radium treatment (in the “colored” section of Johns Hopkins Hospital) her doctor removed two dime-sized tissue samples from her cervix (without her knowledge or permission) and sent them to George Gey, head of tissue culture research at Hopkins.  Searching for causes and treatments for cancer, Gey and his staff had been unsuccessfully trying to grow cells outside the body for decades. Henrietta Lacks cells were the first not just to survive but to continuously re-produce in a laboratory. Labeled “HeLa” these cells are being bought and sold throughout the world for scientific research to this day. HeLa cells were used in developing the polio vaccine, in important medical advances such as gene mapping and in uncovering the secrets of cancer, viruses and infertility. Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 and was buried in an unmarked grave. She was virtually unknown except in the scientific community and even they knew her only as HeLa. 

Author Rebecca Skoots learned about HeLa cells in a biology class when she was sixteen. Her teacher happened to know that the HeLa cell was named for Henrietta Lacks but had no idea who she was, where she came from or what became of her and her family. Ms. Skoots set out to right this wrong and tell the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family to the world. Her commitment to and passion for her subject shines through on every page and reminds us what investigative journalism is all about. Discussion topics abound, segregation, human experimentation, bioethics, legal and political aspects of medicine and race relations.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a book you’ll read and forget about; it’s one you’ll read and really need to talk about.

Kate Larson, Book Club Liaison
Book Passage, Corte Madera, CA

 2011 Survey of Top Ten Book Club Books
(from a survey of community book clubs)
  1. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
  2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  3. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  4. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  5. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
  6. Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
  7. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
  8. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
  9. Little Bee by Chris Cleave
  10. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

These are the titles that appeared most on reading lists, but as usual, Book Passage book clubs are hugely diverse in their selections.  Hundreds of  titles were mentioned only once, spanning genres from classics to humor.  Contrary to popular belief, book clubs will read hardbacks (both Unbroken and The Paris Wife were only available in hardcover last year.)  


2010 Survey of Top Ten Book Club Books
(from a survey of community book clubs)

  1. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  2. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
  3. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
  4. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  5. Little Bee by Chris Cleave
  6. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  8. Out Stealing Horses by Per Peterson
  9. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  10. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Book Passage-registered book clubs read and discussed dozens and dozens of titles in 2010. Listed above are the books, in order, that were mentioned most. Several clubs responded to our request for comments about their clubs and their 2010 reading lists. Here are just a few: “Our choices must have been read by the person recommending them. We have had some memorable disasters when the book ‘sounded good’ but had yet to be read.” Also: “... it seemed like the best-written ones were all very dark: The Road, Sarah’s Key, People of the Book.” I agree with this comment and wonder if this reflects the mood of the times or if most great literature is driven by tragedy: Greeks, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, McCarthy, etc. It does seem the subjects of books and book covers tend to run in cycles or trends. (A few years back it was India.) For example, in 2010 I began to notice a distinct trend in book covers: A faceless woman is portrayed from the shoulders up, the back of her bare neck vulnerably displayed. What does this mean, if anything? I don’t know, but next time you’re in a book store check it out.

While most of the responses came from the San Francisco Bay Area and California, we also heard from clubs in Redding, Connecticut, and South Hadley, Massachusetts. Maybe in 2011 we’ll go international! Many, many thanks to all who sent in their 2010 reading lists—this wouldn’t work without you.