Thursday, April 27, 2017

Fall Meeting Dates

The next meeting, on May 18 will be last one before the library moves to summer hours. Here are the dates for the Fall:

September 14
October 12
November 9
December 7




Saturday, April 22, 2017

Books for May

After the horrors of the World War Two in Anthony Doerr’s stunning All The Light We Cannot See, the group asked for something ‘fluffier’. I am not sure if these two titles fulfill that criterion, but they are now available on the Nooks.


Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Everyone knows a couple like Jack and Grace: he has looks and wealth, she has charm and elegance. You'd like to get to know Grace better. But it's difficult, because you realize Jack and Grace are never apart. Some might call this true love.

Picture this: a dinner party at their perfect home, the conversation and wine flowing. They appear to be in their element while entertaining. And Grace's friends are eager to reciprocate with lunch the following week. Grace wants to go, but knows she never will. Her friends call—so why doesn't Grace ever answer the phone? And how can she cook such elaborate meals but remain so slim? And why are there bars on one of the bedroom windows?

The perfect marriage? Or the perfect lie?




My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout


Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn't spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy's childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lies the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy's life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters.



Saturday, March 25, 2017

Books for April

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.


The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson


More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students learn the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery—one that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever.




Saturday, March 11, 2017

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes




Louisa Clark is an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life - steady boyfriend, close family - who has never been farther afield than their tiny village. She takes a badly needed job working for ex-Master of the Universe Will Traynor, who is wheelchair-bound after an accident. Will has always lived a huge life - big deals, extreme sports, worldwide travel - and now he’s pretty sure he cannot live the way he is.

Will is acerbic, moody, bossy - but Lou refuses to treat him with kid gloves, and soon his happiness means more to her than she expected. When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.




 * * *

Please Note: This review assumes that you have read the whole book and therefore reveals the Will’s final decision.

I was a little wary of this title even though it was very highly rated. Reading the blurb made me dread a sickly sweet Romance that ends with the good love of the Plucky Young Heroine convincing the poor, disabled Man Without Hope that life is indeed worth living. Fortunately that is most definitely not what we got, which is good because I was not looking forward to his electronic wheelchair humming off into a cozy sunset.

Our first impression of Will Traynor is not very flattering. He is rude, arrogant and totally self-absorbed. He is so important that he cannot wait and runs across the road to grab a taxi: right into the path of a motorcycle. This was an interesting choice by Ms Moyes, because it makes Will partially, if not wholly, responsible for his own fate. He is not a victim, even at the moment when his life is destroyed forever, and I was left wondering about the fate of the poor person on the motorbike, who could quite easily have been killed or terribly injured by the same accident.

Equally, Louisa is not the most inspiring of heroines. She floats through life trying to avoid anything difficult or challenging. Her job is easy and boring, her boyfriend is thoughtless and boring and her family life is cramped and unsupportive. To say that she is in a rut is a massive insult to ruts. She is stuck in a chasm of dull responsibility with no prospects of anything better coming along before she dies. But, all good things must come to an end so she is fired unexpectedly and her parents pressure her into applying for any job available. Of course, her lack of qualifications or interesting life experience make it difficult for her to get anything other than a soul-destroying job at the local chicken processing plant. As she comes to terms with this situation as her new future she gets an interview for a job as an assistant to a badly disabled man. For once, her unique approach to fashion and life is an asset and Mrs Traynor sees some possibility that Louisa will be able to reach Will and make him enjoy life a little.

At first glance, this seems massively improbable, especially as Lou has no training or expertise working with very disabled people. However, we soon learn that there is a trainee nurse to provide all the heavy lifting, medically speaking, and that Will has already dismissed all the experienced care-givers in the area. Whether Lou’s appointment is due to some perception by Will’s mother or simply desperation, we never really know but it does seem to work and gradually Will begins to tolerate and even like Lou.

Lou soon sees evidence that suggests that Will has tried to commit suicide in the past and we finally learn that he has made an agreement with his mother to wait only another 6 months before going to an assisted suicide facility in Europe. Unexpectedly, given her previous life, Lou meets this challenge head on and begins filling Will’s life with excursions and stimulation. Some of her plans are spectacularly disastrous, but simply living through them draws the pair together and their relationship deepens. As one would expect, love blossom and Lou finally gets rid of her dull, triathlon-obsessed boyfriend and devotes all her energy to planning the perfect holiday as a last effort to change Will’s mind about dying.

And this is where the story becomes massively controversial. Despite all her best efforts, Lou fails to make his life worth living and Will tells her that he still plans to commit suicide. She is devastated by his announcement that she is not a good enough reason for him to continue to live a life of endless suffering and dependency. However, she finally realizes that she needs to be there with him as he dies and makes peace with his decision to place his needs before hers.

Some people, such as Lou’s mother, will not accept Will’’s decision nor will they forgive those who allow him to fulfill the wish to die. Others understand that it is his decision to make and that nobody has the right to insist that he continues to live in increasing pain until an infection finally carries him off. The book makes it very clear that keeping Will alive is a constant battle against infection and that his health is so fragile that he could die at almost any time.

Naturally, the group discussed this issue for a very long time and whilst we could understand that the natural tendency of some people is to protect life at all costs, we unanimously agreed that it was Will’s decision, and his alone.

This was a man who had lived a vital, physical life before his accident; a man who could no longer do much more than sit in a chair and watch the world go by. Some people can adjust to that way of life, but others cannot. We appreciated that Lou sought out message boards for paraplegics and their care-givers, so that we saw that not all of them succumbed to the initial shock and grief. Many of them were living relatively happy lives, but understood Will’s frustrations. We were also happy that there was no miraculous recovery or wonder medicine that arrived to save the day, although Will could certainly afford any treatment that money could buy. In fact, we liked Ms Moyes decision to make Will wealthy enough that financial considerations were not a problem for him or his family. Even in Britain, where medical costs are mostly free at the point of delivery, he would not have easy access to some of the things that make his life more pleasant.

Some have criticized this book as a manifesto for killing disabled people. This is not how we viewed it. We saw it more as a very sad story about 2 people who met, fell in love and improved each other’s lives for a short time. However, that could not overcome the pain and suffering that one of them had to endure without possibility of respite.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Books for March

Both our choices come from foreign shores this month. A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman was originally published in Swedish and has proven to be exceptionally popular. Fortunately, the Nooks allow us to bypass the giant hold list. Louise Penny is a Canadian author and a resident of our Popular Fiction room. We will be reading her debut novel, Still Life.

Both books are now on the Nooks.


A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.


Still Life by Louise Penny

As the early morning mist clears on Thanksgiving Sunday, the homes of Three Pines come to life - all except one…

To locals, the village is a safe haven. So they are bewildered when a well-loved member of the community is found lying dead in the maple woods. Surely it was an accident - a hunter's arrow gone astray. Who could want Jane Neal dead?

In a long and distinguished career with the Sûreté du Quebec, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has learned to look for snakes in Eden. Gamache knows something dark is lurking behind the white picket fences, and if he watches closely enough, Three Pines will begin to give up its secrets…




Monday, January 30, 2017

Books for February

I am pleased to report that our numbers have swelled recently – so much so that I may need to request a bigger room!

For February, we chose Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley and Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain, both of which are now on the Nooks.



Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley

Cold Storage, Alaska, is a remote fishing outpost where salmonberries sparkle in the morning frost and where you just might catch a King Salmon if you’re zen enough to wait for it. Settled in 1935 by Norse fishermen who liked to skinny dip in its natural hot springs, the town enjoyed prosperity at the height of the frozen fish boom. But now the cold storage plant is all but abandoned and the town is withering.

Clive “The Milkman” McCahon returns to his tiny Alaska hometown after a seven-year jail stint for dealing coke. He has a lot to make up to his younger brother, Miles, who has dutifully been taking care of their ailing mother. But Clive doesn’t realize the trouble he’s bringing home. His vengeful old business partner is hot on his heels, a stick-in-the-mud State Trooper is dying to bust Clive for narcotics, and, to complicate everything, Clive might be going insane—lately, he’s been hearing animals talking to him.


Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain  

After losing her parents, fifteen-year-old Ivy Hart is left to care for her grandmother, older sister and nephew as tenants on a small tobacco farm.  As she struggles with her grandmother’s aging, her sister’s mental illness and her own epilepsy, she realizes they might need more than she can give.

When Jane Forrester takes a position as Grace County’s newest social worker, she doesn’t realize just how much her help is needed.  She quickly becomes emotionally invested in her clients' lives, causing tension with her boss and her new husband.  But as Jane is drawn in by the Hart women, she begins to discover the secrets of the small farm—secrets much darker than she would have guessed.  Soon, she must decide whether to take drastic action to help them, or risk losing the battle against everything she believes is wrong.



Saturday, January 14, 2017

2016 in Review

Goodreads is a wonderful resource for anyone who loves books and reading. It is an excellent way of researching titles or authors and lets you keep track of what you have read and what books make up your ‘To Be Read’ pile. This year it has added a nice feature that provides a summary of activity for the last year, so I thought that I would take that information and add some of my own to put the past year into perspective.


How much did we read?

In 2016, the group met 9 times and read 19 titles. Whist our shortest read was Coraline at a mere 162 pages, Warbreaker filled a whopping 688, so we totaled 7,247 pages, with an average of 381. Most of the time I try to suggest books that are shorter than 400 pages because I know that we cannot all find enough time to read giant tomes: Warbreaker was one of our reads over the summer break.


Who did we read?

Although we are a ‘ladies only’ book group, we actually read 8 titles by male authors this year (even without counting Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett as 2 separate authors for Good Omens). I was pleased to see that we gave the gentlemen a chance to prove that they can write as well as the ladies! Of our authors, only one was responsible for 2 books, but as we have loved all our selections by Neil Gaiman in the past I cannot be blamed for suggesting his work on a regular basis. Terry Pratchett and Jan DeLima were authors that we had read in previous years, but the others were all new to the group. One of the main reasons that I joined the group originally was to discover new authors so I try to continue that tradition, and our favorites have been woefully slow in producing new works.  


How old were they?

The oldest book we read this year was The Left Hand of Darkness published in 1965. The newest titles were Autumn Moon and The Nightingale, which were both published in 2015. The others showed a definite skew towards newer reads, with 14 titles published after 2000. I am not sure if this is a good or bad thing and I keep looking at some of the classics and thinking that perhaps we should try them. This worked well with To Kill a Mocking Bird in 2015 and again this year with The Handmaid’s Tale, so I may keep it in mind for 2017.


What genre were they?

I try to keep us reading a wide range of genres and this year we read books that fell into 15 categories other than ‘Fiction’. Somehow we chose to read a lot of Fantasy (11 titles) even though I do offer alternatives. As a long-time Fantasy / Sci-Fi reader, I make an effort to suggest books from other genres because not only do I want to try many different authors, but also I would prefer that we do not get stuck in a rut. However, if the group keeps picking Fantasy I can hardly complain! We also made our first forays into Non-Fiction, which was massively successful and encourages me to look for other suitable titles to suggest.


Did we like them?

Yes!

We had a couple of titles that left us a little ambivalent, but we enjoyed the majority and were blown away by quite a few. In fact there were only 2 titles that the whole group disliked: River of Stars and The Left Hand of Darkness. Both of these looked interesting and the Ursula K. Le Guin is recognized as a classic of its genre, winning both the Hugo and Nebula Prizes, but, unfortunately, they failed to engage our interest and left us more frustrated and confused than enthralled and delighted. However, they did provoke some lively discussion as we tried to work out what the authors were trying to do and why they did not work for us.  






Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of. 

* * *

As the name implies, the Not Your Ordinary Book Group was always intended to break away from what is expected of traditional reading groups. Keeping this in mind, we have always tried to offer a wide variety of genres to the group, which has led to a very diverse list of titles chosen for discussion. I tend to read fiction myself, but I kept seeing this particular title on lists of recommended reading and it looked interesting, so I thought the group might want to try something really different. I am so glad that I suggested it.

I trained as a biologist in the late 1980s in the UK and yet I have no memory of being taught about Henrietta Lacks. Admittedly, I did not take any courses that depended upon the use of human cells, but it still seems that I should have been aware of her massive contribution to medical research. Of course, that contribution was not one that she made herself, nor was she even aware that some of her cancerous cells had been passed along to be grown in a lab, but it seems to me that her name should be as famous as those of Fleming, Pasteur and Jenner for her influence upon humanity’s collective health. Her cells revolutionized our ability to study human diseases and conditions, leading to countless vaccines and treatments that have saved, prolonged and improved lives. Yet, she died in the most horrible pain and her family has continued to live in the poverty that marred her own short life.

This book gives us a brief history of Henrietta herself, although there is little detail and very few historical records for the author to draw upon. The medical accounts of her illness and subsequent death are terse and clinical, as one would expect, especially given her status as a poor and ill-educated black woman in the 1950s. Other details are dependent upon the memories of her surviving relatives and share the horror of a person consumed by cancerous cells that have proven to be almost immortal in the laboratory. Her autopsy proved that the cancer that began in her cervix had spread to most of her body in a short period of time, so it is hardly surprising that later research showed that HeLa cells could grow rapidly, filling their containers and even contaminating samples of other human cells being grown in the same labs. Their ability to grow and reproduce endlessly makes HeLa cells the perfect research tool because experiments can be repeated endlessly on exactly the same cells, and they have become invaluable to the scientific community.

It is very difficult to read the brief descriptions of the agony that characterized the last few days of Henrietta’s brief life. However, the most shocking aspects of the book are those dealing with the appalling living conditions of Henrietta and her family, even her children and grandchildren. Squalor and poverty, coupled with poor education and a segregated health care system made Henrietta’s early death seem almost inevitable, but I was inexpressibly depressed to see that 50 years had not shown a marked improvement in the family’s social conditions. The pattern of poverty, drug abuse, criminality and the non-treatment of both physical and mental illnesses was repeated through the generations although I was very heartened to learn that one of Henrietta’s great-grandchildren was about to go to college when the book was published.

It is very easy to blame the research community, and John Hopkins in particular, for their cavalier attitude towards using Henrietta’s cells without permission and then profiting from their application. However, samples were being taken from many sources in an attempt to find a source of human cells that could be used for research outside the body. This means that many, many samples were tried and died before Henrietta’s miraculously survived. The man whose lab was successful in cultivating the HeLa cells did so for no profit whatsoever, and sent samples of them around the world free of charge, unlike other less scrupulous practitioners who did indeed profit from cells obtained with little, or no, informed consent. I can also understand why John Hopkins did not want to admit any financial responsibility towards the Lacks estate because it could have set a precedent for claims by other patients. However, it did seem that somebody, somewhere should have felt morally responsible for making some recompense to the Lacks family and I was rather disappointed that nobody had stepped forward to do this.

On the whole, the actions of the scientific and medical communities were poor in many respects with regards to Henrietta and her family, but the author provides many examples of other cases showing a similar disregard for patients. As is often the case with early work in a new field of research, ethical issues only became apparent after a certain amount of damage was done. Whilst most parties were acting in good faith, their ignorance of potential consequences led them to behave in ways that seem scandalously unethical when viewed from our perspective.

As our first foray into Non-Fiction, this title was a great success and received a unanimously high rating from the whole group. We were perhaps most impressed by how the author’s tenacity in pursuing this story of many years as her relationship with the Lacks family waxed and waned. Her efforts have produced a massively informative book that is still easy to read and understand. She refrains from being too judgmental about the researchers directly involved with the first production of the HeLa cells and so maintains an impartial air throughout. She is obviously outraged and moved by the struggles of Henrietta’s descendants, but does not allow that feeling to bleed through into her writing.


    

Books for January

Now that everyone in the group has become an ardent fan of snails, thanks to Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s exquisite memoir, I wanted to offer some non-snail alternatives for the 6 weeks before our next meeting. The titles chosen are Archetype by M.D. Waters and Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I have added them to the Nooks.

Our next meeting will be on January 22 in the Camden National Bank meeting room, which is in the business center. In the meantime, please try to stay warm!


Archetype by M.D. Waters

In a future where women are a rare commodity, Emma fights for freedom but is held captive by the love of two men—one her husband, the other her worst enemy. If only she could remember which is which . . .
 
In the stunning first volume of a two-book series, Emma wakes with her memory wiped clean. Her husband, Declan—a powerful and seductive man—narrates the story of her past, but Emma’s dreams contradict him. They show her war, a camp where girls are trained to be wives, and love for another man. Something inside warns her not to speak of these things, but the line between her dreams and reality is about to shatter forever. 




Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life. 




Saturday, November 19, 2016

Books for December

As always, I like to suggest some thought-provoking titles in my selections as well as some lighter fare. The Left Hand of Darkness appeared on a list of books set in Winter and I thought that the gender issues involved would make for a lively discussion. I suggested The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating because I thought it might be an interesting exploration of immobility after Me Before You.

Both books are now available on the Nooks.


The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin


On the planet Winter, there is no gender. The Gethenians can become male or female during each mating cycle, and this is something that humans find incomprehensible.

The Ekumen of Known Worlds has sent an ethnologist to study the Gethenians on their forbidding, ice-bound world. At first he finds his subjects difficult and off-putting, with their elaborate social systems and alien minds. But in the course of a long journey across the ice, he reaches an understanding with one of the Gethenians—it might even be a kind of love...







The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey


While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches a wild snail that has taken up residence on her nightstand. As a result, she discovers the solace and sense of wonder that this mysterious creature brings and comes to a greater understanding of her own confined place in the world. 

Intrigued by the snail’s molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making, hydraulic locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal.