Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Diverse Reads 2013: Reviews

I've had an amazing streak of good reads lately. Here are some mini-reviews, in the order I read them:

THE BROKEN LANDS by Kate Milford
Did you know that Brooklyn's name may have been derived from the Dutch word for fractured, or broken lands? If you're as enamored with that historical fact as I am, and all the potent symbolism behind it, then you must read BROKEN LANDS.

This is my second Milford book, and while it started slowly, I knew I needed to keep with it, and pay close attention as she set all the pieces in play for her historical fantasy: a young male card shark in Coney Island, his father who died while helping build the Brooklyn Bridge, an itinerant black man who can play any song on his guitar, a hotel lobby full of Civil War veterans with haunted eyes, a trafficked Chinese girl with a gift for fireworks, an immortal man made out of sand, etc. Then I sat back and watched this magical world come to life, exquisite in detail, deep in meaning, and absolutely thrilling.

I read this book before I intended to start my February reading, but was pleasantly surprised to discover a story rich with diversity. While the Chinese girl Jin isn't the main character, her story of trafficking, foot-binding, and apprenticeship with someone who finally allows her to learn and appreciate her culture and religion deeply moved me. It was well-researched and sympathetic, and seemed the perfect way to start this month of reading.

ARISTOTLE & DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This is a book that breaks all the rules--which is fitting since it's about rules, expectations, and being an outsider. There were only a few dramatic scenes. Most of the book was "told," not "shown." The middle could've easily lost 100 pages. The narrator, Ari, was laconic and didn't understand himself, which is completely realistic for a 15 year-old boy, but can be a frustrating reading experience. Yet, this novel also had me madly turning pages, made me cry, and was surprisingly sexy. And the more I think about it, the cleverer it becomes. Sometimes real life doesn't fit into the neat confines of plot, and dramatic scenes, and witty, verbose narrators. But I do enjoy the reading experience more when it does.

Not exactly highly recommended, but definitely recommended. And it's been beloved by so many others, your mileage may vary!

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot
This book was given to me for Christmas by a science writer friend / relative. I'm not usually a huge fan of non-fiction (easily bored, I guess), but I was riveted and finished it within two days. My friend had promised a person didn't have to know science to understand it, and she was right. But I think what I found most fascinating within the book was the intersection of worlds, between people who do understand science and those who don't, between city people and rural people, white and black, rich and poor. HENRIETTA presents an ethical quandary (is it right to use people's cells without permission or compensation?), but then kept pulling the rug out from under me as I tried to answer it: what if the people don't have health insurance? What if they don't understand what cells are? What if the revelation of this cell "donation" leads to health problems and mental illness? What if these cells make billions of dollars and change the world? I found myself choked up when an Austrian graduate student, after decades of silence from the scientific community, simply and non-judgmentally answered all the Lacks' family's questions about cells, explained that their mother wasn't immortal, or hidden away somewhere in London, or half-plant, half-human. For two days straight while reading, I talked to anyone who would listen about this book, about what was right, what was wrong, whether scientific advances justified the means. Highly recommended, though I wish I had had a class or a book club to discuss it with!

And if that hasn't convinced you to read it, check out this awesome trailer about the book, the science behind it, and the writing life, too.

More reviews to come on Thursday!

10 comments:

  1. I did read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and am glad I did. Thoughtful.
    Thank you for the pointer to Milford's book. My sort of sandwich. (Just didn't feel like saying my-cuppa-...)

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    1. Oh, I hope you do read and enjoy Milford! Technically Broken Lands is a "prelude" to The Boneshaker, but I don't think it really matters what order you read them in. I think she's brilliant!

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  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Look forward to your next review post. :-)

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    1. Thanks, Anna! It takes a bit of energy to write up the reviews, but it's so nice to use space to talk books!

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  3. My fondest memory of reading HENRIETTA is when someone presented the family with a helix portrait of the cells. I can't remember, it may have been her DNA helix. But I thought the gesture was really nice.

    I look forward to your next set of reviews.

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    1. Yes! That's the Austrian grad student! He was my favorite, too! So nice to finally have someone simply acknowledge the family. And Skloot didn't make a big deal of it, but I found it really interesting that he wasn't American.

      Thanks, Karen!

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  4. Thanks for these reviews, Anne. I'm adding Aristotle & Dante to my TBR list =)

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    1. Oh good, glad you're willing to give it a go! Do let me know what you'd think! Obviously my feelings were quite conflicted!

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  5. I just finished reading Aristotle & Dante and absolutely loved it. Much of the story was "quiet" and I really liked that about it. But it held an unexpected power, too, that took me by surprise and I cried at several points in the story. I really enjoyed how present both of the boys' parents were throughout the story. A nice change in YA.
    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this one, Anne!

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    1. Thanks so much for stopping by to tell me you enjoyed it, Ruth. Yay!

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