Maira's Books

In January of 2005 I started this blog as a record of books I’ve read as I was afraid I would forget what I have read. I have often referred back to my own blog to remember a book's contents or see what I have read by an author. I have enjoyed passing my books on to friends or recommending books to read. I know I have missed recording some, but in general I try to keep up with what I have read or listened to.

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Location: Kalamazoo, MI, United States

I am a librarian at Waldo Library at Western Michigan University.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)

This was the book the Gender & Women's Studies department chose for discussion for Women's History Month. Great choice, again! Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cervical cancer and doctors took cells from her tumor and were surprised that they grew and did not die off, like no other human cells to that point. They were named HeLa cells after the woman, and were grown and distributed throughout the world for medical research that has resulted in drugs for herpes, leukemia, polio and many other diseases.

Rebecca Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks in 1988, when she was 16, in a community college biology class, and was intrigued. Who was this Henrietta Lacks? No information was out there. As Rebecca went through college getting her biology degree, she kept searching for information on Henrietta. In graduate school she studied writing and kept thinking she wanted to write Henrietta's story. Eventually she spent more than 10 years researching the Lacks family and the scientific research around tissue samples that culminated in the publishing of this book.

The story itself is haunting - how an energetic poor black woman from the tobacco fields of Virginia moves to Baltimore, raises a family and dies young, leaving 5 kids behind to struggle without her. Meanwhile her cells take on a life of their own in the scientific laboratories, making careers and money for many along the way.

I am amazed by the perseverance of Skloot, her ability as a young white woman to earn the trust and respect of this black family, especially the daughter Deborah. I don't always read the acknowledgements, but this chapter was fascinating in an of itself. Skloot talked to hundreds of people, bout the Lacks' life and the scientific side of this book. She researched in libraries, archives, governmental, hospital, laboratory records. Sounds like dozens of people read the manuscript. When someone in the discussion group questioned the timeline in the book that is not quite linear, I realized this was thought about in depth and the decision was made to offer the story in the best way possible. It worked for me.

The big question that Skloot tackles is medical and research ethics. Back in 1951, there were no institutional review boards checking over research with humans. Research and its guidelines have evolved over these decades, but there are still many unanswered ethical questions about the use of human tissues - the rights of the donors - do they have a say how their tissues are used, for what kinds of research - and who gets to profit off of these tissues? Is the patenting of genes and tissues a good thing or does it encumber research? Skloot raises these questions throughout the book, but then spends the whole afterward pulling these issues together.

Very powerful book. It is being considered for first year experience as a common read book.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (2009)

I was actually intrigued by the cover and description of the latest Flavia DeLuce mysteries, but it looked like I needed to start from the beginning, so I listened to this book. I actually didn't like 11 year-old Flavia that much in the beginning, but she grew on me. I just read an interview with the 70 year old first book author about why he choose to have the book narrated by a girl in England in the 50's. He remembers his own passionate interests at that time, and Flavia is an avid chemist with a special interest in poisons. As a young girl, she is not taken seriously and has access to people in a way that they don't realize she might actually do something with the information they give her. England, because his mother was from England, and he felt he grew up in an English household. And the 1950's, because he wants to look at some aspects of British life that has vanished. In this book it is about postage stamps.

Flavia finds a dying man in their garden, a man her father had an argument with just earlier that night. Flavia takes it upon herself to solve they mystery of who he is and who killed him, especially when her father gets arrested for the crime. She lives in a large house with her father, two older sisters with whom she does not get along, a cook, and Dogger, the handyman, who is the only one with whom she really has a solid relationship. Flavia ends up researching her father's past in boarding school and the plot centers around two stamps that were printed in an orange color protesting Queen Victoria, if I am not mistaken. One was recently stolen from the King and the other from a school's headmaster years ago.

I just had to get used to Flavia spouting off chemical facts, though I did like her working in her own private lab. One of the first things we see her do is poison her sister's lipstick with poison ivy extract. I also loved that she used the library - looking things up in old newspapers. Another fun thing was that she traipsed all over the countryside either on foot or on bike. I still did some of that when I was growing up, but don't think my son has done that very much. I can't say that I am totally enamored by this book, but will probably pick up the others in due time.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Cup of Friendship by Deborah Rodriguez (2011)

Another good one. This book helped me get a sense of what life is like in Afghanistan now or at least very recently. Sunny has opened up a coffee shop in Kabul, and though it was hard for me to fathom why an American woman would do so in such a dangerous place, where being a woman and a foreigner can be such a liability, but the story was finally convincing and very moving. I wasn't quite ready for another heavy book, and kept wondering if it was going to become a realistic bummer or have a reasonable happy ending. I think Rodrigues did a nice balancing act between the harsh realities of death, the abuse of women and children, the terrorist bombings AND the message of hope, friendship and love. I really enjoyed the evolving group of friends at the cafe. Starting with those working or living on the premises - there is Halajan, the widowed owner of the building, who likes to smoke in secret and wear jeans under her traditional dress and has a secret passion for her childhood friend the tailor; Halajan's traditional son Ahmet, who takes care of security at the cafe; Yazmina, who was kidnapped by drug lords from her uncle's house, but taken in by Sunny when she sees her at a government office and realizes Yazmina is pregnant (from her husband who has been killed) and has a very bleak future; and the local Afghani cook. The interesting visitors to the cafe include Isabel, a BBC reporter; Candace, recently divorced from a diplomat, mistress of a handsome Afghani; Jack, an American who knows many languages; Tommy, Sunny's boyfriend that drops in every so many months between assignments as a sniper; and others. The cafe is the place for foreigners to meet and sometimes drink wine out of the tea pots. Sunny throws these elaborate parties for Christmas, Easter and other holidays. But it is a time that the Taliban is regaining strength, and the Americans and other foreigners slowly pulling out. Definitely one to suggest to friends.

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Secrets by Jude Deveraux (2008)

Quick read as I couldn't concentrate on anything heavier while waiting for my son to get out of a surgery to fix his broken nose. Cassie falls in love when she is 12 years old and accompanies her distant mother to a highly charged work retreat. She notices Jeff, who seems to be the calm in the middle of the storm. After college she finds that he is living in historic Williamsburg, VA, goes to work in the school his child attends, and becomes his nanny. Then there is the elderly movie star living next door, and Cassie starts helping her organize her memorabilia. But Jeff isn't quite the quiet engineer he pretends to be. Liked the image of a history buff living in this historical town. Since I have been there, I can see that it could be fun to brush with history on a regular basis, and have a fun place to take kids. I liked the precocious little girl,  the live in grand father, even the reclusive movie star. Good fluff book.

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Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2006)

This appeared on a few "books to read" lists, so I got it from the library and almost did not make it though. Way too heavy for me right now. This is supposed to be a young adult book, but I have no idea how young adults read it, understand it, respond to it. It was the heaviest of the heavies on World War II, on all the deaths, the annihilation of Jews, the Hitler youth, the lack of food - it is all there. I like books about books, which is partially why I picked this up, but though books and words play a major part in this story, it was very difficult to read.

The narrator is Death, who gets very busy during the war. An interesting perspective. It reminded me of Brightest Star in the Sky , but that was a different kind of spirit seeing into everyone's souls. Death is fascinated by the life of this one girl Liesel, our book thief. 

The book is written in strange ways, with chapter headings giving sort of a table of contents, e.g. Prologue: a mountain range of rubble, in which our narrator introduces: himself -- the colors -- and the book thief. There are lots of interspersions, like *** A Strange Word *** or *** The Book's Meaning *** and these are followed by some explanation. A lot of German words are used throughout the book, including slang. Most of them are explained and give flavor to the book. In three places there are illustrations, as we have one of the characters writing and illustrating his own thoughts and stories - and we get a sample of those. Other than the last piece, I found these interspersions annoying, but maybe they help slow down the story, so it is easier to deal with the heaviness of the material.

There are so many references to the events and situations in history, I am really not sure how kids understand this. And though I know that time period fairly well, I felt that much of what the writer was trying to convey was going over my head.

Liesel's little brother dies of a cough, when they bury him, she finds a handbook of the graveyard diggers, which is her first stolen book. Her mother can't take care of her and she is sent to a foster home with Hans and Rose Hubermann. Hans is a painter, plays the accordion and teaches Liesel to read. Rose takes in other people's laundry. Liesel's best friend is Rudy, next door, who is obsessed with Jesse Owens and loves to run. Hans takes in the son of a war-time buddy - Max, a Jew, whom he hides in his basement. People die, people get whipped for trying to give Jews some bread. I don't know what else to say. I think I want to try reading something else by this author, but only if it is lighter.

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Louis Comfort Tiffany by Jacob Baal-Teshuva (2004)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I needed a visual companion to Clara and Mr. Tiffany. The introductory text is also in German and French, and illustrated with photos and examples of Tiffany creations. But the main part of of the book is a luxurious rendition of many of Tiffany windows, lamps and vases. Tiffany also oversaw the production of mosaics and smaller items, including jewelry, but these three main areas were of greatest interest to me. When anything was described in Clara's story, I would find it in this book and drool over it. My favorites were the dragonfly, peacock and wisteria lamps.  This book showed the things mentioned the best of all those we had in the library. I read the introductory text, getting some more details about Louis Comfort Tiffany's life, his relationship with his father Charles Lewis Tiffany, who was best known for his jewelry. Maybe I will buy a copy of this book for myself. The end of the book contains a catalog of where all these items are located. I will definitely have to put the Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, FL on my travel list.

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Clara and Mr Tiffany by Susan Vreeland (2011)

Best book of the year, so far. Love those art history fiction books, and this is about one of my favorite art forms - stained glass. I have admired stained glass since I was a kid bored during church services, and have liked Tiffany style lamps, seen Tiffany windows (at least in a small chapel off the coast of Georgia), bought Tiffany note cards. Then, while living in Ohio, I bought my first piece of stained glass with a rainbow and mirror from a street artist in San Francisco (so he could get his car out of the parking garage). My next piece was a round night scene with a tree that I bought an an Ohio art fair, where I felt I had walked into a fantasy land, when I walked in the booth of these glorious stained glass windows. The $80 round piece was the cheapest thing there, and though outside my budget, I have never regretted purchasing it. Then I met Luna Mountainsea, a stained glass artist, from whom I have purchased numerous pieces over the years. As I was reading this book and yearning for a Tiffany lamp, I realized i have my own - not shaped like a typical Tiffany lamp, but a three sided lamp made of glorious glass and shells, and amber, and it is one of my prized possessions.

This book is obviously based on historical information - mostly letters from Clara Driscoll, that have recently come to light, and that describe her time with Tiffany from 1893 to 1908 (I'm not going to go back to check the accuracy of these years, but they are about right.) Louis Comfort Tiffany had women working for him, as long as they were not married. They mostly had some artistic background, as they were the ones to design some of his windows, choose the glass, and cut the glass. Only the soldering was not done by them. Clara had worked for Tiffany earlier, but left when she got married, then when her husband died, she returned to run the women's workshop. It is thought that it was her idea to create lamps our of the stained glass pieces instead of just blown glass, and she received an award in Paris for her dragonfly lamp.

I loved reading about how these glass pieces were made, how Tiffany struggled to get the glassblowers to create iridescent glass - mostly for vases, but also for the windows. Since I have had glassblower friends and Luna showing me excitedly her various glass samples, and seen how much work goes into creating a stained glass piece, I could visualize much of the descriptions.

As with previous art history novels, I need to see what is being described, so I took out a few books on Tiffany from the library and found one that had all the windows and lamps mentioned. If I give this book as a gift to anyone, I will have to give the book of images too.

Vreeland goes far beyond just describing Clara's work with Tiffany, she describes her life and the times at the turn of the century, which I found as fascinating as the story of her work with glass. Clara lived in a boarding house filled with interesting characters. One of her best friends is George, a gay artist. I was fascinated by the description of gay life in those days. Of course it was kept out of the public eye, but it flourished, and Clara helped out by being the female date to operas and other events. George tried to make her a part of his family by setting her up with his brother, but that relationship ran into problems. We do see him working in a social worker type capacity with the poor immigrants. Clara herself does an amazing job overseeing her "girls" in the workshop, dealing with their various life problems, and when the men's union gets mad because the women finished a job the men refused to do, she fights for the right of the women to continue working. You get a good sense of her own relationships from this book, undoubtedly quite accurate, since they were based on her letters.

Plus, we get ring side seats to history - the World's Fairs in Chicago and Paris, the opening of the New York subway system, and much more. Just love it!

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Savor the Moment by Nora Roberts (2010)

This is the third book in the Bride Quartet and focuses on Laurel McBane, the pastry chef. I've got to say this is one of the weaker books by Roberts, but she always gives some details I find interesting. After watching some of the cake baking shows on TV, there was not that much new in the pastry side, but I am still interested in how people pull things like this together. The love interest, which was clear from earlier books is Del, her friend Parker's brother. They have to resolve a pretty simple thing about knowing each other since childhood, she having a crush on him from that time, but having kept it just being friends, the move to being romantic partners is not that simple. My biggest problem with some of these series books is that it is a too self contained world. Why in the world would they want to vacation together (the four couples) after working together all year. I guess having a tight knit group of friends is nice, but I like a more expansive approach to life. Laurel at least has traveled, studied in France, worked in NYC, but returns to this secure circle of friends. Now to just get Parker married off to that mechanic Malcolm.

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The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (1997)

Subtitle: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. I think I even own this book, but never did read it, so I thought I should read something good for my soul around my birthday. It was OK, but nothing special. The four agreements make sense: Be impeccable with your word. Don't take anything personally. Don't make assumptions. Always do your best.  I think I basically do try to live by most of these, though being impeccable is hard, and I do tend to take things personally. All good advice, but much of it is about relating to your partner, those very close that you live with. Since I have chosen not to have someone that close in my life, and my child has just moved out,some of the book did not feel as applicable.

O'Hurley's Return by Nora Roberts (2010)

Contains: Skin Deep (1988) and Without a Trace (1990)
Two quick Nora Roberts' novels read over the Christmas season. This is two of I assume four books on the O'Hurley's, who were raised by a couple of vaudeville actors constantly moving and performing as a family. The three sisters are twins and they have an older brother. In Skin Dep see the story of Chantel, now a famous movie star. She falls for her body guard Quinn Doran. In Without a Trace, the older brother Trace has just retired as a spy and is relaxing in Mexico, when an Irish woman Gillian Fitzpatrick looks him up and get him to go save her brother and father from terrorists. I like Roberts' thriller books.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Is There Really a Human Race? by Jamie Lee Curtis (2006)

I have always wanted to read one of Jamie Lee Curtis' children's books, as I find her a fascinating actress, so I assume her books would be fascinating too, and she did not disappoint. With great illustrations it plays with the idea of a wide variety of humans racing towards something - "Did it start on my birthday?" "If the race is a realy, is Dad on my team? And his dad and his dad?" About being a success, but do some win and some lose? And of course the great lessons - "If we don't help each other, we're all going to ... crash."... "Shouldn't it be that you just try your best?"... "And make the world better for the whole human race." You have to see it, it is really fun.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Burroughs Cyclopedia by Clark A. Brady (1996)

I didn't really read this, just took a look, but thought it was interesting to find a reference book on Burroughs. The subtitle is: Characters, Places, Fauna, Flora, Technologies, Languages, ideas and Terminologies Found in the Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I looked up a few of the things I had questions about from Princess of Mars and found them informative.