“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot                  

This is a nonfiction book that reads like a novel.  Rebecca Skloot took her time getting to know the family of Henrietta Lacks, earning their trust over a period of years, and respecting their wishes in regard to their mother’s story.  She puts in the energy and time to befriend and understand the family, to assist them in their personal desires to learn about their mother.  This is interesting book combining scientific and medical history in the context of use and abuse of colored persons, as science and medicine work toward their own goals without considering the personhood of the people involved.

“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer, yet her cells– taken without her knowledge– became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer and viruses; helped lead to in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave. Her family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. The story of the Lacks family is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.”

Summary from our online catalog

Rebecca Skloot makes this family real, and its members are depicted as individuals with their own personalities, interests, skills, and understanding of the contribution of Henrietta and of her loss.  She depicts how they are affected by the death of their mother so early in their lives.  She makes you wonder how it is possible that someone could have something as personal as the cells in her body taken without her permission, knowledge, or understanding why.  And then the medical world goes on to handsomely profit, both financially and medically, from this decision.  The family wasn’t informed of this, and certainly did not receive any monetary compensation for this development.  This family didn’t even always have the basic healthcare they needed. 

This book has earned 7 literary awards (ALA Notable Books – Nonfiction: 2011, Booklist Editors’ Choice – Best Science & Technology Books: 2010, Goodreads Choice Awards: 2010, Library Journal Top Ten, National Academies Communication Award, New York Times Notable Books – Nonfiction: 2010 and Science Books and Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books: Young Adults).  It is well written, technically correct while being relatively easy to read.  While it isn’t a “fun” read, it is an important read. 

“The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot” by Marianne Cronin

Lenni is a 17-year-old-girl living out her days in a ward at Glasgow Princess Royal Hospital for people who are terminally ill.  She has a lot of living to do in the short time that she has left.  Margot is an 83-year-old woman who has lived a full life and is also a resident of the same hospital.  She is not ready to stop living her life.  These two meet and begin a fulfilling and lovely friendship full of kindness, connection and adventure.

Lenni has a different viewpoint of life and surprises the people she meets along the way with her comments and ideas:  Margot, the new nurse, Father Arthur, the friendly porter . . . she is a girl without a supportive family and somehow manages to create her own family at the hospital.  She is a young person who doesn’t have time to become the person she could be.  She is searching for who she is and what she believes.

Margot is a woman who has known suffering.  She was a young girl with dreams, a loving wife, a new mother, a dear friend, and she lost so much along the journey of her life.  Lenni longs to understand and know Margot.  Once she learns about the painting class at the hospital for the older residents, she begins attending.  She and Margot share their stories, their histories through the medium of a series of paintings.  Lenni thinks it would be wonderful if she and Margot created paintings, one for each year of their collective lives – 100 paintings that snapshot moments in their lives that feel meaningful to them.

They work on the paintings and come care for each other deeply.  This is an affirming story although not necessarily a happy one.  I admit to a few tears along the read.

“Reclamation: Sally Heming, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy” by Gayle Jessup White

Gayle Jessup White went looking for her roots.  She had heard family comments about a Thomas Jefferson connection mentioned now and then over the years, but never was anything discussed in depth.  Some family members thought the family was related to the early US president and some did not believe it was so. 

 “Gayle Jessup White had long heard the stories passed down from her father’s family, that they were direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson – lore she firmly believed, though others did not.  For four decades the acclaimed journalist and genealogy enthusiast researched her connection to Thomas Jefferson, to confirm its truth once and for all.  After she was named a Jefferson Studies Fellow, Jessup White discovered her family lore was correct.  Poring through photos and documents and pursuing DNA evidence, she learned that not only was she a descendant of Jefferson on his father’s side; she was also the great-great-great-granddaughter of Peter Hemings, Sally Hemings’s brother.  In Reclamation, she chronicles her remarkable journey to definitively understand her heritage and reclaim it, and offers a compell-ing portrait of what it means to be a black woman in America, to pursue the American dream, to reconcile the legacy of racism, and to ensure the nation lives up to the ideals advocated by her legendary ancestor.”

Summary from HarperCollins Publisher LLC

Gayle, who spent her adult working life as a TV reporter and anchor, became interested in determining the truth behind the possibility of a blood connection to the former president.  Using her research skills and interest in history and genealogy, she followed leads to tease out the truth behind the possibility.  Then Gayle gets her “dream job” working for The Thomas Jefferson Foundation.  With increased access to information, she is finally able to confirm her ancestry with both the president who was an enslaver and his enslaved people who were also her ancestors.

Along the journey, as Gayle used historical artifacts, family lore and personal interviews to recreate her own families’ unique ancestral family trees, she had to consider the implications of belonging to two races tied together in an awful way during our country’s early history.  She discovered that Black history and American history are really one, and that it is time for Americans to accept and reconcile this past and the ramifications on its citizens for over 200 years. 

I feel this is an important book to read if you want to understand the history behind racism in our country, how it came about, and how it is entrenched in our lives to this day.

“Miss Benson’s Beetle” by Rachel Joyce

Margery Benson is stuck.  She is a large woman in her mid-40s, a schoolteacher for many years in a girls’ school.  She is lonely, financially struggling, bereft of dreams, sad, living a repetitive and unfulfilling life.  Once she did have a dream . . . to find a magical golden beetle like the one in her father’s special book.  She obsessed about this, studied beetles, caught beetles.  But life in its worst form got in the way.  Margery has suffered such losses, and such a lack of love.  Her life has been put on hold, the same drudgery day after day.

And then one day, in London of 1950, a city still suffering the effects of World War ll, she cracks.  Naughty school girls mocking her push her over the edge, and she just walks away.  She goes home and decides to leave in search of her long-deferred dream.  She decides to travel to New Caledonia, on the other side of the world, and hunt for the gold beetle.  Of course, she will need an assistant, so she advertises for one.

Four people apply, but one isn’t even considered.  With bad spelling and grammar, her response is written on a shopping list – she is totally unsuitable.  But the others aren’t better.  Some don’t want the job of travelling around the world to hack through a jungle on what seems like an impossible mission.  And one is a man, clearly unstable after time as a POW during the war.  She decides to contact Enid Pretty.

Well, Enid is nothing like an assistant should be.  She is inappropriately dress, too talkative, lacking the skills needed.  But she is all that orderly Margery has, so off they go.  Throughout the book the two women learn to tolerate, help, and even care about each other.  They have many adventures and misadventures; their trip is very unpredictable.

Do you want to follow along on their journey, both geographically and metaphorically as they reach into themselves and discover who they really could be?  As they both strive for their combined and separate dreams?  These ladies are characters that you can’t forget.  This is a wonderful book about the transformative power of friendship!

“The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper” by Halley Rubenhold

We have all heard about Jack the Ripper, the monstrous serial killer who slaughtered women in 1888 in Victorian era London.  But what do we know of those he killed?  Is it important that we know about them?  Hallie Rubenhold thinks so and wrote a book showing them to be the individuals that they were:  women of lesser means trying to survive in an unforgiving world.

From Goodreads.com:

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met.  They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales.  They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.  The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women.

For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that ‘the Ripper’ preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told.  Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny.  They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.

Hallie Rubenhold uses her historical research skills to track down sources about each of these women and pieces the information together to create a narrative that not only informs, but humanizes, these five.  You come to see them as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, friends.  They are people trying to make a living in a tough time period, where jobs are few for women and pay is minimal.  They tried to do their best by their families, but fate and relationships and illness got in the way.  They are real people with emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and loves.  They should not have been reduced to the category of “prostitute”, of fallen women perhaps courting their own deaths.  That is not a fair depiction of who these ladies were in life.

Although other similar murders of women occurred during this time frame, these five are considered the “canonical five.”  The police were unable to conclusively determine whether they were the work of “Jack the Ripper”, a killer copycat, or another serial murderer who happened to kill during about the same period of time.  Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane do appear to be the work of the same person, so these are the women that Rubenhold chose for her focus.

We may never know who was truly “Jack the Ripper” or why he was never caught or identified.  We know that he was a deranged soul, victimizing the weak and helpless “fairer” sex.  He is no hero, no titillating personality.  The women he preyed upon never deserved their deaths at his hand.

This is an excellent book, written more like a novel than the non-fiction work that it is.

“Time After Time” by Lisa Grunwald

Lisa Grunwald is the author of six earlier novels, including The Irresistible Henry House, Whatever Makes You Happy, New Year’s Eve, The Theory of Everything, and Summer, and a children’s book titled Now, Soon, Later. With her husband, Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler, she has edited three anthologies: The Marriage BookLetters of the Century, and Women’s Letters.  Grunwald has been an editor and writer at the magazines EsquireAvenue, and Life, and has freelanced for others.

And now, for “Time After Time” . . .

What would you do if you found the girl of your dreams?  She is young, and beautiful, and somehow out of place.  Her dress seems quite old-fashioned.  She has no coat on in December and she carries no luggage – in Grand Central Station!  She appears to be a damsel in distress and Joe wants to help.  He is totally charmed by her.

Joe Reynolds works a very stressful and demanding job as a railroad man in Grand Central Station.  It is 1937 and he has been working there for close to 15 years. He is 32 years old and looking for something more in his life. 

He goes to work one day and spots Nora, in need of assistance.  They talk and he would love to spend time with her, but work calls.  Joe cannot get her out of his mind.  It is one year before he sees her again.

Nora looks exactly the same.  She is excited to see Joe!  They do spend some time together and Joe begins to think there is a future with her.  He tries to find her again, but he doesn’t know enough about her . . . where does she live?  What does she do?  Why can’t he find her?  He tries to get information about her, and he waits . . . .

The problem is who Nora really is and “when” Nora was, and nothing could prepare Joe for this.  But he falls in love with her nevertheless, and she with him, and they will try to find a way to be together.  Joe wants this future and so does Nora.

This book is so interesting, so intense.  It flips back and forth between Nora’s life and Joe’s, and the one they try to make together.  Will they be able to?  Will love win out?  Will they make the right decisions?  You must read this book to find out!

All I can say is, “Love is timeless.”

“The Personal Librarian” by Marie Benedict

I appreciate that the author, Marie Benedict, delves into the lives of historical women, both well-known and obscured by time.  She brings these ladies to life and puts you in a time and place that are unfamiliar to you.  You learn a lot about the time period, mores of society, constraints on persons of different genders, races and social classes, as well as what life was like for that particular person herself.  She makes them blood and bone, and very much alive to her readers!

In this book, she presents the life of Belle da Costa Greene, a woman who became the personal librarian to one of the most powerful and famous men of her era, J. Pierpont Morgan. That Belle achieves this is amazing, because unbeknownst to the people she works for, works with and socializes with, Belle’s parents are Black.  This is a time when Blacks were kept “in their place”, limited to less than the best in education, profession, and communities that would accept them as residents.  This is a substantial impediment to Belle’s life goals.

Belle is intelligent, hard-working and focused on procuring a career for herself and earning enough money to assist her struggling family after her father deserts them.  You feel her concerns and the care taken to keep her background secret as she develops herself into a knowledgeable, educated, and cultured woman.  She is shown to be driven and very clever in achieving her goals.

“The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian-who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict and acclaimed author Victoria Christopher Murray. In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. Pierpont Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture on the New York society scene and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps build a world-class collection. But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and well-known advocate for equality. Belle’s complexion isn’t dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white-her complexion is dark because she is African American. The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths she must go-for the protection of her family and her legacy-to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives”—(Provided by publisher.)

If you love books, art and the early twentieth century, there is something for you in this book!  Like me, I hope you will read Marie Benedict’s other books and meet some very remarkable women!

“Such a Quiet Place” by Megan Miranda

What if you spend time with your neighbors?  You have picnics and parties together, go on walks, watch out for each others’ children?  What if you keep an eye on your neighbors’ homes for them?  Help out when you can?  And you are sure that you have gotten to know them very well.  Hollow’s Edge is such a calm and caring place to live.

But you have a roommate.  Ruby Fletcher is erratic and makes folks uncomfortable.  Then there is a murder in the neighborhood.  Who among the neighbors could do that?  Who can you trust?  Who can’t you trust?  You thought you knew them but nothing is sure now.  So everything and everyone seems to be a risk.

That is the position that Harper Nash finds herself in.  Her roommate, Ruby, seems so suspicious.  There is a trial, the neighbors, including Harper, all give their testimonies.  Ruby is convicted and sentenced.  But a little over a year and a half later, the conviction is overturned and Ruby returns home to Harper’s house, as if nothing ever happened.  The neighbors cannot understand how this could be and the whole neighborhood tenses up.  The circle of fear and mistrust begins again.

Who killed Brandon and Fiona Truett?  Was it Ruby?  Someone else?  This quiet little neighborhood of “friends”, this “quiet place”, is no longer so.  Residents feel trapped.  The notoriety of the deaths prevents anyone from selling their homes and moving away.  The Truett home sits empty, a dark and daily reminder of the terrible event.

Harper is on the frontline.  She shares her home with Ruby and doesn’t feel she can ask her to leave.  Ruby hasn’t anywhere to go.  But Harper is afraid.  What is Ruby up to and why did she come back?  Then, Harper receives a threatening note.  She must find out what is going on before another person is killed.

Hollow’s Edge is a mirage and Harper goes looking for the truth behind the cozy houses.  Can she find it, before it is too late?  This is a wonderful twisty novel with a surprising ending!

“72 Reasons to Be Vegan: Why Plant-Based. Why Now” by Gene Stone & Kathy Freston

“Better sex, glowing skin, and more money … by going vegan

Did you know that if you adopt a vegan diet you can enjoy better sex? Save money? Have glowing skin? You can ward off Alzheimer’s, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and other metabolic diseases. You can eat delicious burgers. Help save the planet. Join the cool kids, like Gandhi, Tolstoy, Leonardo—and Kyrie Irving, Kat Von D, and Joaquin Phoenix. Oh, and did we mention have better sex? (It’s about blood flow.)

Those are just some of the 72 reasons we should all be vegan, as compiled and persuasively argued by Gene Stone and Kathy Freston, two of the leading voices in the ever-growing movement to eat a plant-based diet. While plenty of books tell you how to go vegan, 72 Reasons to Be Vegan is the book that tells you why. And it does so in a way that emphasizes not what you’d be giving up, but what you’d be gaining.”

What you just read is a summary of the book “72 Reasons to Be Vegan: Why Plant-Based. Why Now” from the website of the publisher.  As someone who has several vegan friends and is always on the lookout for new foods to try and healthier choices to include in my diet, I decided to give the book a try. Unlike other books on the general subjects of diet and nutrition or animals and the environment I found this to be a quick, easy read as well as an informative guide.

The authors approach the subject of veganism from a scientific view … explaining the many benefits of eating a plant-based diet in short, yet informative chapters – 72 in all.  Whether you’re already a vegan and simply want to remind yourself of the great benefits of your diet choices, a person who’s dabbling in going vegan or someone who has never tried a plant-based diet before, this book is for you.  If you’re concerned about the impact of factory farming on the environment, this book is for you.  If you are becoming aware of the plight of animals “living” on these farms, this book is for you.  

Vegan diets are becoming less of a “hippie” thing and are now gaining momentum every day as people become more aware of the trouble our planet is facing, and how important a healthy gut is.  It’s a very positive book in that, yes, it does warn about the things happening to our planet and the many living creatures we share it with but it also gives easy to implement suggestions for how you can help yourself and contribute to the greater good.  The easy to digest, easy to adopt, positive suggestions will help you feel empowered. And you don’t have to feel pressured to go cold turkey all at once.  Every change is a change for the better.  Even if you don’t adopt a totally vegan lifestyle, you’re sure to pick up plenty of pointers along the way.

“Raft of Stars: A Novel” by Andrew J. Graff

“It’s the summer of 1994 in Claypot, Wisconsin, and the lives of ten-year-old Fischer “Fish” Branson and Dale “Bread” Breadwin are shaped by the two fathers they don’t talk about.  One night, tired of seeing his best friend terrorized by his no-good dad, Fish takes action.  A gunshot rings out and the two boys flee to the woods, believing themselves murderers.  They find their way onto a raft, but the river and the natural terrors of Ironsford Gorge threaten to overwhelm them.

Four adults track them into the forest, each one on a personal journey of his or her own:  Sheriff Cal, who’s having doubts about a life in law enforcement; Tiffany, a gas station attendant and poet looking for connection; Fish’s mother, Miranda, full of fierce faith; and his grandfather Teddy, who knows the woods like the back of his hand.

This timeless story of loss, hope and adventure runs like the river itself amid the vividly rendered landscape of the Upper Midwest.”

Looking for an interesting summer read, I was immediately drawn in when I read the description above, from the back cover of the book “Raft of Stars”.  Born and raised in Wisconsin, I always like to check out stories based in my home state.  I spent many summers on family rafting trips in the northwoods of Wisconsin, so this book felt like a lovely place to visit, and I was richly rewarded for doing so.

“Raft of Stars” reels you in very quickly.  The author, Andrew J. Graff draws us into the lives of each of the main characters swiftly, with few words but plenty of depth.  If you’re a fan of the 1986 film “Stand By Me”, you’re sure to like this story, and the characters of Fish and Bread.  They are two decent kids growing up with certain challenges in their lives, and their friendship is believable and honest.  Of course they get into scraps and such, just as any kids would, but the author does a fantastic job of making you cheer them on from the very beginning.

Teddy, Fish’s grandpa is an interesting, multi-dimensional character.  He’s introduced as pretty rough around the edges.  He has scars from his time at war.  He isn’t a loveable, huggable teddy-bear of a grandpa, yet it’s clear that he has the best interest of Fish and Bread in his heart at all times.

Sheriff Cal and Tiffany are flirting with a relationship, but both are too scared to pull the trigger.  I loved the way the author handled what may or may not be a budding relationship for them.  That, too, was very lightly written…no Harlequin Romance drama here.

At times funny, sometimes scary and at times extremely sad, this book was one I didn’t want to put down.  The author’s descriptions put you right there in the heart of the forest, or floating down the river, and i found myself immersed in the story.  When the “raft of stars” line is introduced, it’s beautifully done so, in a poignant, sensitive way.

I wish I could write about another of the characters, someone who is revealed to us in the story, and who is probably the character I will remember the most when this story comes to mind in the future.  Andrew J. Graff absolutely struck at my heart strings with his writing about this soul.  It’s a stunningly beautiful, memorable part of the story and an unexpected gift, as well.  So hard to bite my tongue and not write more about this except thank you, Mr. Graff!!  

My only criticism of the book was that I felt that some of the verbage and dialogue was written in a more old-fashioned, almost western gunslinger way than I recognize from my life in Wisconsin and my ventures “up north”.  I was proven wrong, however, when I read that “Andrew J. Graff grew up fishing, hiking and hunting in Wisconsin’s northwoods.”  I guess the man wrote what he heard, so I stand corrected!

Raft of Stars will appeal to anyone who likes a good adventure and appreciates the beauty of nature, the gift of life, and the power of love.  I invite you to travel on the river with Fish and Bread and enjoy the ride.