March 2012 Archives

The Help

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Click for availability and more information The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
 
To those who have not yet read Kathryn Stockett's hugely popular The Help, this reviewer is pleased to report that it is as great a reading experience as so many have reported since it publication in 2009. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, the main character is Skeeter Phelan, a recent graduate of Old Miss. Dreaming of developing a writing career after her college graduation, Skeeter is frustrated by the lack of opportunities for doing that as she moves back to her parents' home after receiving her college degree. Her sole outlet for writing becomes creating a home-maintenance advice column for the local newspaper. Not giving up on her writing dream, Skeeter begins to plot the story she wants to write. It concerns using the lives of assorted maids who work for white families in Jackson to write a work of fiction. She first convinces the indomitable Aibileen Clark to cooperate with her by having Aibileen agree to tell Skeeter all about her life as a black woman being the maid for years in white homes in Jackson. After overcoming much reluctance by many other maids to speak with her, Skeeter finally gains their confidence and she begins to collect the life stories of other Jackson maids.

The Help is so well plotted and written that the reader is totally transported to Jackson, Mississippi during the days of uneasy racial relations between white and black. Being a black woman serving as a maid in a white house was full of twists and turns - many heart breaking and deeply humiliating for those women. Stockett so vividly and humanely brings her wonderful characters to unforgettable life. One in particular, Minny Jackson is a sharp-tongued observer of the life she and Aibileen must endure and survive. In all, The Help is a terrifically entertaining story and highly recommended. If a book club has not yet chosen this title, it is would be a great reading selection.
-Roy

Heaven is for Real

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Click for availability and more information Heaven is for Real, by Todd Burpo
 
Several years ago, I turned on the television and happened to catch an interview on Good Morning, America with a couple who claimed their son visited heaven during a critical medical emergency. Recently, I spotted a book on the story titled Heaven is for Real. It's the story of the Burpo family from Nebraska. The father, Todd, is a part-time pastor at a church, and has 3 children. His middle son, Colton, suffered a ruptured appendix and almost died in the hospital. Several months after his recovery, Colton began telling his parents about who he had seen in Heaven and what Heaven was like. He also talked about meeting his great-grandfather, as well as a sister who had died in childbirth. Colton also told his parents some other details which amazed them. Although religion is a big part of this book, it's still an interesting story from a scientific point of view. I was so intrigued by it, that I read it in two days! In a way, I felt uplifted and energized by it. You will, too!
-Carl

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Click for availability and more information The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
 
Extensively praised since its publication in 2010, Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, combines a recounting of both an incredible medical development involving research on the cells taken from one human being with the effect of the use of those cells for scientific purposes on the family of the person whose cells were taken from her for this research. At the center of this incredibly fascinating book, is Henrietta Lacks, who was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920. In her late 20's, she developed an extremely destructive form of cervical cancer. Prior to her death in 1951, human cells were removed from her body to be used for research purposes by a doctor at Johns Hopkins without her knowledge or permission. Those cells became known as HeLa cells; so named by using the first two letters of Henrietta's first and last name. The HeLa cells became unique for they could be grown in cultures and used to study various diseases and other areas of scientific research.

It was as a young student that Skloot became aware of the existence of these cells and she was to become enthralled by their history and use within the scientific community. At the early stages of her writing career, she began to meticulously research the story of these cells. Concerned with discovering all she could about the person whose cells became the center of the HeLa research, she tracked down the former husbands, children, grandchildren and assorted family members of Henrietta Lacks. The legacy of the Hela cells on Henrietta's family was a source of great mystery, frustration, resentment and pride within that family.

The HeLa cell story itself at times might make readers question if they are reading fact or fiction. Yet, thanks to Skloot's clear and very well documented writing, the HeLa cell story, as well as Skloot's telling of the Lacks's family involvement with that story, both come vividly alive and make for very readable and extremely interesting reading. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is highly recommended, especially for those readers who have an interest in the biological sciences and the remarkable achievements in research the scientific community has made in the past decades using the HeLa cells.
-Roy

Last Flight

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Click for availability and more information Last Flight, by Amelia Earhart; arranged by George Palmer Putnam; foreword by Walter J. Boyne
 
Like everyone else, I've always been curious about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart on her 'round the world flight. Rumors abound about her being shot down by the Japanese, being captured by cannibals, etc. So I decided to download Last Flight to my iPad. It was put together using dispatches, letters, diary entries and charts used along the way. Amelia represented the new, independent woman long before women's liberation hit the scene. She was a record setter, being the first to fly from Hawaii to California, California to Mexico and twice across the Atlantic (1928 and 1932 - once as a passenger and once as pilot). Descriptions of the tight quarters, scenery and different cultures are very entertaining. She really had a positive and unique way of looking at things. And she knew how to enjoy life. Her flights were not only courageous, but they also demonstrated how convenient air travel could be. There is no doubt she was an important pioneer in aviation history. Sometimes I think the mystery is better left unsolved.
-Carl

The Magician's Boy

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Click for availability and more information The Magician's Boy, by Susan Cooper
 
A magician's apprentice is tired of washing the rabbits, cleaning the magic wands and getting the puppets ready for the "St. George and the Dragon" part of the show. The Boy longs to do magic, but the Magician tells him he is not ready yet. When the St. George puppet goes missing from the magic act, the magician sends the Boy into the Land of Story, where only a child can bring back what is lost. In the Land of Story, the Boy meets characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales who try to help him in his quest to locate St. George.
-Deirdre

Click for availability and more information Unbroken: A World War II Airman's Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand
 
For a harrowing, true-life story of human experience in the Pacific theater of World War II, few books can top the unbelievably grueling account of Louis Zamperini in Unbroken: A World War II Airman's Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. Her thorough and very well-documented research into Zamperini's life has resulted in a compellingly readable book. After a chaotic childhood, Zamperini gained fame as a world-class runner and even competed in the Berlin Olympics of 1936. After the war began, he ended up in Hawaii serving in the Army Air Corps. His misfortune in his war experience began when the aircraft on which he was serving crashed in the Pacific Ocean. He and two other members of his crew miraculously survived - only to end up floating on a raft for 47 days. Their conditions while on their raft were extreme as they fought off shark attacks, barely had any food at all to eat, and had endless struggles in finding even small amounts of water to drink. Eventually, one airman died and then the Japanese captured them. Then, their odyssey through the Japanese prison camps began. That is a tale filled with horrid conditions, true torture at times gleefully administered by their Japanese captors and other depravities. Once the atom bombs were dropped, Zamperini and his fellow prisoners of war eventually were released.
His return to civilian life was marked by numerous troubles with alcoholism and marriage difficulties. However, Zamperini eventually pulled his life together and served as a great inspiration to many. Louis Zamperini's life is remarkable and Laura Hillenbrand has written a terrific book about a man who survived many terrifically difficult years of service during World War II. Unbroken is highly recommended.
-Roy

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

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Click for availability and more information Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin
 
The Newbery Honor story blending fantasy and folklore of Ancient China. Minli, the daughter of poor rice farmers, loves to listen to her father's stories and sets out to find the Old Man of the Moon who she hopes will change her family's fortune. With a rescued dragon as her companion, the two follow clues around the kingdom with the hope of finding the answers they seek.
-Deirdre

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