Sunday, January 02, 2011

Book Favorites: Hanje's 2010 Picks

--by Hanje Richards

Here are some of the books I am recommending in the winter of 2010-2011. Room by Emma Donoghue is my favorite book of the year. It is powerful, imaginative and might make my special category of “life-changing.” I have also included two books from my TBR (To Be Read) Pile. All these books are available at the Copper Queen Library.


Room (Emma Donoghue) - To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough... not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work. Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year old Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

House Rules (Jodi Picoult) - Jacob Hunt is a teenager: brilliant at math, wicked sense of humor, extraordinarily organized, hopeless at reading social cues. And Jacob has Asperger's. He is locked in his own world – aware of the world outside, and wanting to make a connection. Jacob tries to be like everyone else but doesn't know how. When his tutor is found dead, all the hallmark behaviors of Jacob's syndrome – not looking someone in the eye, odd movements, inappropriate actions – start looking a lot like guilt to the police. And Jacob's mother must ask herself the hardest question in the world: Is her child capable of murder?

Imperfect Birds (Anne Lamott) - Rosie Ferguson is seventeen and ready to enjoy the summer before her senior year of high school. She's intelligent – she aced AP physics; athletic – a former state-ranked tennis doubles champion; and beautiful. She is, in short, everything her mother, Elizabeth, hoped she could be. The family's move to Landsdale, with stepfather James in tow, hadn't been as bumpy as Elizabeth feared. But as the school year draws to a close, there are disturbing signs that the life Rosie claims to be leading is a sham, and that Elizabeth's hopes for her daughter to remain immune from the pull of the darker impulses of drugs and alcohol are dashed. Slowly, and against their will, Elizabeth and James are forced to confront the fact that Rosie has been lying to them – and that her deceptions will have profound consequences.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot) - Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

Why Evolution is True (Jerry Coyne) - In all the current, highly-publicized debates about creationism and its descendant, “intelligent design,” there is an element of the controversy that is rarely mentioned – the evidence, the empirical truth of evolution by natural selection. Even Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, while extolling the beauty of evolution and examining case studies, have not focused on the evidence itself. Yet the proof is vast, varied, and magnificent, drawn from many different fields of science. Scientists are observing species splitting into two and are finding more and more fossils capturing change in the past – dinosaurs that have sprouted feathers, fish that have grown limbs. Coyne weaves together the many threads of modern work in genetics, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, and anatomy which demonstrate the “indelible stamp” of the processes first proposed by Darwin. In crisp, lucid prose accessible to a wide audience, Why Evolution Is True dispels common misunderstandings and fears about evolution and clearly confirms that this amazing process of change has been firmly established as a scientific truth.


At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Bill Bryson) - Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet, one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has figured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.

Just Kids (Patti Smith) - It was the summer Coltrane died, the summer of love and riots, and the summer when a chance encounter in Brooklyn led two young people on a path of art, devotion, and initiation. Patti Smith would evolve as a poet and performer, and Robert Mapplethorpe would direct his highly provocative style toward photography. Bound in innocence and enthusiasm, they traversed the city from Coney Island to Forty-second Street, and eventually to the celebrated round table of Max's Kansas City, where the Andy Warhol contingent held court. In 1969, the pair set up camp at the Hotel Chelsea and soon entered a community of the famous and infamous – the influential artists of the day and the colorful fringe. It was a time of heightened awareness, when the worlds of poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual politics were colliding and exploding. In this milieu, two kids made a pact to take care of each other. Scrappy, romantic, committed to create, and fueled by their mutual dreams and drives, they would prod and provide for one another during the hungry years. Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. It serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions. A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists' ascent, a prelude to fame.