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Posts from the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

I still love books

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Pat Conroy, Oldsmobiles & Coming of Age

It’s hard to say with precision why I love Pat Conroy so much.
He himself admits, he is not a literary giant.
I may even pan writers today that have the same kind of pulpy, page turning novel.

But Conroy feels nostalgic to me, in a way that no other contemporary writer does. His name surfaces time washed images of Oldsmobiles, guess jeans, bad haircuts. Family vacations. Read On…


Henrietta Lacks Was Screwed.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks had been recommended to me several times before. I had seen its author, Rebecca Skloot, on the Colbert Report, and was amazed that she managed her very serious subject with the humor demanded by Colbert.

And the copy lent to me carried the validation of the Ted (“ideas worth spreading”) book club attached to it–a bright ribbon book mark heralding its inspirational affiliation. Smart, cool people read this book. And so I guess I should too.

First, I think this is a story you need to know about. It’s fascinating and it’s true. Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in the 1950s, is one of the most famous contributors to modern medical science.


Upon her death, her cells were cultivated and grew like wildfire. They were cultured and sold across the medical industry to conduct endless experiments and enable medical breakthroughs on polio and cancer research and AIDS.

The book is a study in medical history, ethics, racial equality and a compelling personal story. It sounds like a really weird thing to say–but it’s kind of a page turner. I don’t find myself saying that about too many cervix-related books.

Okay, but here’s the thing. Henrietta Lacks received really no credit (to start) and certainly her family got no financial remuneration for the vast contributions she made to the medical field. In fact, the personal aspect of the story focuses on a family that is struggling to make ends meet, stay out of jail, and not shoot anyone.

Yep, there is really no way around the punch line:
Henrietta Lacks and her family got screwed.

And I feel terrible for saying this, but I am not sure that this part of the story needs to be an entire book. One could easily read it as one of those 9 page New Yorker articles. You know, the ones you just didn’t think it was possible for an article to be that long? I think that Skloot could have managed the personal side of the story pretty efficiently.

Don’t get me wrong. I read it in 3 days. I couldn’t put it down. It’s intriguing and well written and kind of suspenseful in its own kind of way. It would be a great book group book for those interested in the notion of medical privacy, who owns what (who knew! I don’t really own my tissue samples!), and how the research industry has evolved–you have yourself one firecracker of a discussion.

Maybe I just didn’t like that it didn’t have a happy ending. With all this attention on the Lacks family and what they had been through, I thought some type of redemption would come to them all.

But the punchline remained the same: Henrietta Lacks got screwed.

An Ode To That Special Place. No, it’s not Detroit.

Let me point out for you one of the best articles in last Sunday’s New York Times.
It was in the second magazine section and was easily missed.
(Hat tip: AH!)

Ann Patchett writes a beautiful essay about the wonders of Northern Michigan. She even allows us to do a fly by of one of her favorite book stores on the planet, McLean & Eakin, in Petoskey. (Check out their staff favorites tab, excellent!)

Okay, guilty. I was raised in Michigan. And generally, we are a proud people when someone can cite something about our state besides the depressing state of Detroit. So work with me. Give us our moment.

And, admittedly, her exquisite detail hit a sentimental nerve. She speaks of places that I don’t know specifically, but can feel the humid air, recognize the smells, and taste the flavors generally.

But this is what really struck me.

Across the U.S. last Sunday, thousands of people read this story and inserted their own version of Petoskey, Michigan. When someone with such talent shares a beautiful description of a place, we fill in the details with our own experiences. This is what separates the book from the movie–we get to fill in the blanks with our own reality. We get to go somewhere new and yet familiar at the same time.

Funny enough, Patchett’s article took me somewhere different in Michigan — to a small little smidgen of a place called Harsen’s Island. Fifty miles from Detroit and sitting pretty in the channel between Canada and Michigan, I spent more times there than I can count during my childhood. It’s undoubtedly idealized in my mind.

Patchett’s essay helped me to recall:

  • That my grandfather used to sit in a chair listening to the Tiger games on the radio, eyes closed and occasionally lobbing a lougie of Red Man into a spittoon.
  • That my grandmother used to buy Planters cheese balls in a can.
  • That there were sodas in tall bottles stacked in crates on the porch with the bottle opener mounted to the wall.
  • That we used to watch storms out the front window and my grandfather used to try and convince us there was something called “snake lightening”. Which we could never identify but he certainly seemed to be an expert in spotting.
  • That my parents and aunt & uncle used to play pinochle in the evenings which seemed to result in incredibly unhealthy competition and so legend goes the deck of cards ended up in the fire. The loser was guilty.
  • That we dipped cattails in kerosene and lit them on fire to use them like torches. (Um, guys, really bad parenting there, FYI.)
  • That the best place in the Chris Craft after waterskiing was laying on the inboard motor because you got warmer faster.
  • That you could swing from the weeping willow trees like Tarzan into the canal if you timed it carefully (again, suspect parenting.)
  • That it was the first time I heard my Dad *really* swear when the tow line got caught up in the propeller and he said: “Marv, make sure the f**&$# engine is off.”
  • That he used to allow us to try and get the boat ourselves into the boathouse which required a lot of reversing, several passes and his hand at the bottom of the steering wheel.
  • That I spent my tenth birthday with ten girls and as many fishing poles in chaotic bliss.
  • And that my grandfather made the same damn scrambled eggs every Sunday and called them “Palmer House Specials”. He would periodically look out the window to see if “people were lining up on the road” to get them. The joke never got old.

So, this was a very long winded way of saying:
Read the damn article, people.”

I don’t care if it’s Harsen’s Island, Fire Island, Whidby Island, a Wisconsin lake, a house at the beach. It doesn’t matter really. It will be a fun trip.

Did this article remind you of a certain place?

P.S. Anne Patchet: I am sorry I said you are the same person as Anna Quindlen and Annie Lamott and all those other Annes. I take it back. You’re cool, girl.


Warning: Death, Love & Loss Ahead.

Let me hit this one straight on.
Both the books reviewed here are about death and grief.

And that’s not for everyone, I reckon.

It isn’t light-hearted and isn’t funny and likely might not fit with that glorious spring day you are experiencing—wherever you may be.

So I wanted to warn you.

Over the last two weeks, I have read two books that look at death, loss, and grief. That they were read together is a complete accident. That I loved both of them and they spoke to me was decidedly not.

The brutal truth in life is that people we love die.
And the people who are our friends love people who die.

And for some people, and even at certain moments, this is just too painful to examine in real life. But through a book, maybe we can see it and experience it more clearly.

For those of you that might have had recent experiences which deal with the complex emotions around losing someone you love (and please, I assure you, also for those who have not), let me recommend two absolutely excellent books. Their exploration of death–and what follows before and after–is masterfully delivered.

Joan Didion, one of the most prolific writers of our time, wrote a book called “The Year of Magical Thinking” in 2005. She won the National Book Award for her fantastic memoir that describes in harrowing detail losing her husband to cardiac arrest and watching her daughter battle a surprising illness that ultimately takes her life. These tragic events happen simultaneously.

Didion portrays in great detail the hospital, funeral and other iconic moments in death, but reports it in a way as if detached from the situation. But his single scarf on the back of the dining room chair, the notes on a notepad in his office—the symbols of their everyday life as a loving couples and as friends–depicts so clearly the loss and emptiness she feels at John’s passing. The magical thinking refers to the fact that if she wishes hard enough, he may return. She does not give away his shoes. He may need them.

In an era of reality TV and voyeurism, Didion opens up her personal grief in an analogous way. The amazing detail she shares allows you to feel like you are experiencing it with her. But also safely, intellectually, from a distance.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.  We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.  We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks.  We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock.  We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.  We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss.  We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.  IN the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.”  A certain forward movement will prevail.  The worst days will be the earliest days.  We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place.  When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” to rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death.  We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day?  We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue.  We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion.  Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we  imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

While it is a sad and tragic situation, I want to communicate that it is not depressing. It is simply profound. It is credible, accessible and appreciated. It is a love story of sorts. It feels in some way like a gift. Preparing us for a road ahead which we don’t want to contemplate.

When a male friend insisted I read the “The Spare Room” by Helen Garner, I digested the slim 175-page novel in one glorious, childless plane ride. It consumed me, reading the story of a woman in her mid-60s (“Helen”) who tends to Nicola, an adult friend enduring alternative treatments to her late onset cancer. Unlike Didion’s book, in which death happens instantaneously and we follow her through an excavation that follows, Garner’s book takes us on an imminent glide path to death—the preparation for, the caring of, the letting go. It is a different view and a different kind of pain.

Slyly sniffling on the plane, I read about this dedicated friend who struggled with being selfless and selfish, who wanted to allow her crazy friend hope yet bludgeon her with a dose of reality. Only when I finished did I see the jacket cover describe Garner as ‘Australia’s Joan Didion’.

They share a knack for clean language, brutal honesty and strength with tenderness.

“The Spare Room” is positioned as a novel but the story seems so raw and so real, one can’t help but believe that it is simply a memoir where the facts have been changed. (Call me a rocket scientist, the main character is named Helen). This captivating story simply could not have been created in the imagination; the honesty about the many complex emotions you may feel in the process could not have been so realistically recounted without personal experience.

So, I admit it.
To me too, it seems such a strange post for a warm spring day.

The sun shines. It feels hopeful and warm. The kids play little league and the dog chews on a pinecone and the New York Times gets read and a spouse travels home safely.
It is calm and blissful.

Didion opens her book with these simple words:

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instance.
The ordinary instance.”

On the flip side of death and grief, there is gratitude.
Savor your warm, delicious spring day.

We have built “Top 5” list before. Are there any other powerful fiction and memoir you have read about death and loss? Share them here….


Friday’s Popcorn, Served on Monday

I typically round out every week with some fun popcorn for the weekend.
I was busy preparing for my guest spot over at Motherese today, where we are launching her book group with Raising Happiness. Check it out.

It’s raining here. Still.
And it’s Monday.
So why not send it today?

1. Carolyn Kellogg at the Los Angeles Times has a much more positive view than I did on the iPad as an e-reader.

2. Break out the Lily Pulitzer, whale corduroys, and Bermuda bags! The Preppy Handbook is back! Not really my style (admittedly: anymore), but still worth a good laugh.

3. The 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced today.

Fiction: Tinkers by Paul Harding.
Non-Fiction:  The Dead Hand by David E. Hoffman

4. Finally, My kids got an email this weekend from a former babysitter who is now a teacher. She sent this video to them with a note: Gotta Keep Readin’! They thought this set of middle schoolers recreating a Flash Mob in Florida was pretty darn cool.


For more juicy little tidbits like these, follow me on Twitter.

Reminder: on Wednesday, I will be reviewing the first 100 pages of BrooklynOur April BookSnob selection.


A One Night Stand With Michael Lewis.

I asked a good reading friend the other day if Michael Lewis was a lightweight. The response: “Uh, yeah, pretty much”.

Okay. Shoot.
Not the response I was hoping for.

For those of you following along, I’m very suspicious of books that climb to the top of the bestseller lists (see? look! Solar by Ian McEwan is at #1 though it got panned by nearly everyone who reviewed it…)

And there is Michael Lewis, sitting pretty at the top of the list, being bought at an unprecedented pace. It took me 3 bookstores to get my copy.

So, rather than be a hypocrite (sooo distasteful), I decided to simply make an arbitrary new rule (of course, creative and fun).

New rule, people.

Everyone gets a “Celebrity Exemption” on BookSnob. You know, the Celebrity Exemption is the celebrity you would sleep with if you broke your marriage vows, and got a hall pass for one steamy night. (Answer: Jake Gyllenhaal, George Clooney, Mark Ruffalo, Bradley Cooper. Oh wait? Is it only one? Woops, sorry hon.)

Okay, well, I digress.

If we are going to be picky about books, let’s face it, we all are going to need a BookSnob Exemption from time to time.

I pick Michael Lewis.
I really don’t care if he’s a lightweight. Because he is damn entertaining.

Lewis is a consummate storyteller. I can tell you that first hand. In a past life, I actually hired him to speak at my then company’s corporate event. He came and actually played Liar’s Poker with the attendees in the evening and the next day, dazzled us with tales of how Billy Beane begged him to cut the swearing from Moneyball because his mother would not approve. He was mesmerizing and charming. One hour with Lewis was not long enough.

No doubt many of you are exposed to him through the recent The Blind Side (based on his book of the same name). But Liar’s Poker & Moneyball are just great tales. I am deep into The Big Short and remembering why I so love his books.

Midnight, 12:30a, 1:00a.
Ug! Put it down!

Lewis has this uncanny knack of delivering a very detailed analysis of an industry or a topic by breaking it down into digestible chunks. He makes you want to know more. I am not a financial industry lightweight, but the mortgage industry does get hopelessly confusing (not to mention dreadfully dull), but I am following along, people. Because Lewis doesn’t just go deep on subprime mortgages and CMOs–he lets the people involved tell the tale. He captures the human side of the story. He gives you plenty of facts, but somehow really makes you care.

You want to have some scary details about how our financial markets were hopelessly intertwined and all generally riding on the ‘greater fool’ theory–read this book. It’s fascinating. It plays like a sequel to Liar’s Poker–the steamy underbelly of Solomon Brothers, the bond department, lives another day!

Plus, Michael Lewis is funny. Oh, and I am a sucker for funny men. The proof is in this quick NPR podcast. He’s self-effacing. He has a sincere laugh. He seems like the kind of guy who would be fun to have a beer with and…ahem, discuss the book with.

Who’s your BookSnob exemption?
Your secret, guilty, decidedly unsnobbish reading pleasure?


Trend Line: “GapingVoid” w/ Hugh MacLeod

One day, you hear someone’s name for the first time. The next think you know, you feel like the last person on earth to know them.

Such it was with Hugh MacLeod.

He’s a cartoonist. He’s creative. He’s irreverent and insightful. And he began his claim to fame by scribing “Dilbert with a black humor edge” doodles on the back of people’s business cards.

And then he wrote a book–“Ignore Everybody. And 39 Other Keys to Creativity
Two people I respect immensely *raved* about the inspiration of this book. A third, strategist and author Nilofer Merchant, actually hired him to do the illustrations in her new book: “The New How“. (More on that later).


Nope, I haven’t read the book.But I quickly set up the cartoon on my RSS feed.

On his site, he promises he is getting back to the ‘edgy stuff’ after a nice flirtation with a Valentine like love series. Well, good, because I like irreverent. I like funny. I like, unfortunately, poking a bit of fun. This is better, of course, with a dash of inappropriateness.

And if you don’t have time to read the book, some of the principles of the book may at least catch your attention:

1. Ignore everybody.
2. The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be yours.
3. Put the hours in.

4. If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail.
5. You are responsible for your own experience.
6. Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten.
7. Keep your day job.
8. Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity.
9. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb.
10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props.
11. Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.
12. If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.
13. Never compare your inside with somebody else’s outside.
14. Dying young is overrated.
15. The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.
16. The world is changing.
17. Merit can be bought. Passion can’t.
18. Avoid the Watercooler Gang.
19. Sing in your own voice.
20. The choice of media is irrelevant.
21. Selling out is harder than it looks.
22. Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.
23. Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time.
24. Don’t worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually.
25. You have to find your own schtick.
26. Write from the heart.
27. The best way to get approval is not to need it.
28. Power is never given. Power is taken.
29. Whatever choice you make, The Devil gets his due eventually.
30. The hardest part of being creative is getting used to it.
31. Remain frugal.
32. Allow your work to age with you.
33. Being Poor Sucks.
34. Beware of turning hobbies into jobs.
35. Savor obscurity while it lasts
36. Start blogging.
37. Meaning Scales, People Don’t.
37. When your dreams become reality, they are no longer your dreams.

Who’s read it?