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?


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.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Meeting Dates for Spring 2017

We will meet at 6.00 pm in the Board Room on the ground floor

January 26th

February 23rd

March 23rd

April 20th

May 18th

Dates for later in the year will be announced nearer the time.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Books for November

I am pleased to report that our first non-fiction title was a resounding success, however, we return to purely fictional selection this month. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes was highly recommended even before the recent movie adaptation. The approach of the festive season, and long dark nights, makes Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman seem like a great choice to pass the ever-lengthening evenings.

Both books are now available on the Nook accounts.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick. What Lou doesn't know is she's about to lose her job or that knowing what's coming is what keeps her sane.

Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he's going to put a stop to that. What Will doesn't know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they're going to change the other for all time.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,Witch (the world's only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner.

So the armies of Good and Evil are amassing, Atlantis is rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon—both of whom have lived amongst Earth's mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle—are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture.

And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist . . .

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Books for October

This month I am proud to announce that we have selected our very first Non-Fiction title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I have heard so much praise for this hybrid of science fact and biography, and so many people have recommended it to me, that I am pleased that it is one of our choices this month. The other is another offering from the amazing Neil Gaiman and I am sure that his Coraline will put us all in the mood for Halloween.

The books are now available on the Nook accounts and are ready for download.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline's often wondered what's behind the locked door in the drawing room. It reveals only a brick wall when she finally opens it, but when she tries again later, a passageway mysteriously appears. She is surprised to find a flat decorated exactly like her own, but strangely different. And when she finds her "other" parents in this alternate world, they are much more interesting despite their creepy black button eyes. When they make it clear, however, that they want to make her theirs forever, she begins a nightmarish game to rescue her real parents and three children imprisoned in a mirror. With only a bored-through stone and an aloof cat to help, Coraline confronts the harrowing task of escaping these monstrous creatures.

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.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

In a frighteningly possible future, the members of the United States government have all been assassinated and the constitution over turned. In its place there has arisen the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian Theocracy that ruthlessly imposes Old Testament ideals upon its entire population. The world is suffering from a sharp decrease in fertility and an equally worrying increase in non-viable babies being born. In response to this, a woman’s place in Gilead’s society is dictated by her ability to reproduce or fulfill another useful role in the production of viable offspring. All women are categorized and forced to wear clothing of a certain color to advertise their role in life. They must not stray from their roles, they must not question those in authority, they are forbidden to read and are encouraged to think as little as possible: they must simply accept the role that God has prescribed for them. This is especially true for the Handmaids who have proven that they are capable of producing healthy babies.

If a high-ranking official, like the Commander, has the misfortune to have an infertile Wife he can be assigned a Handmaid. She is a non-person, a receptacle for carrying his baby and nothing more. She is known only by the word ‘of’ plus his name. She must do nothing other than receive the gift of his seed once a month and then carry his child. If she fails in this task than she will be passed to a different man, but if she has not had a child after the third man she will be discarded and sent to the work camps cleaning up the toxic zones: for the law states that no men are sterile and so the fault must lie with her.

Offred has already failed to become pregnant with two men and we follow her thoughts as she settles into life with The Commander. She remembers her marriage to Luke, who had divorced his first wife to marry her. This made their union illegal under the new regime and allowed the state to annul it and separate them by force. She also remembers her daughter who was stolen away and given to an influential infertile couple. Then there is her mother, the raging feminist, who became an enemy of the state for believing that women had the right to do things other than reproduce. She also remembers her friend Moira, the lesbian, who escapes from their Handmaid 'training' camp in search of the resistance movement and a way to reach the utopia of Canada.

* * * 

The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that I had been recommended many times and I remember watching the film version many years ago, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it with the Book Group. Although the book is thirty years old, I was surprised by how depressingly relevant it is to modern America, with its debates about access to birth control and abortion and the rape culture that commiserates about the sentencing of young men who make a ‘mistake’ while the victims are vilified for all the ways that they were ‘asking for it’. 

I have always considered myself a feminist in that I believe that men and women should hold equal value and that a person’s gender should never be the factor that determines their role in life. As a biologist, I am aware that total equality will never be possible because of the very unequal method by which we reproduce, but other than making allowances for this fundamental difference in physiology, I firmly believe that neither sex has an intrinsic superiority to the other. These beliefs made it very difficult for me to read about a society where women are either walking wombs or solely concerned with making babies or looking after men. The later revelations about the men who go against their own rules to visit prostitutes, whilst condemning any form of female sexuality, was all too predictable to raise much more than sadness from me.

The fear of the female ability to reproduce lies like a stink over Gilead, and it is a stink that also wafts through some aspects of modern American politics, so I found it all too plausible that a democracy based upon personal freedom could be replaced by a misogynistic theocracy. When I hear absurd statements about a rape victim’s body “shutting that whole thing down”, only “sluts” wanting contraception and masturbating male fetuses (that last from a pediatrician, no less) I truly wonder if I have been transported back in time or to an alternative universe. We are bombarded by so much moral criticism aimed at the female of the species that you would think that men had nothing at all to do with the reproductive process. It is not as if contraception is a modern invention: papyri from ancient Egypt outline recipes for contraceptive plugs whilst the Greeks used an extract from the plant silphium so much that it was harvested to extinction and I will not even begin to relate the number of things that have been used to make condoms. Yet some people still think that abstinence is a viable alternative even though history has proven that humans often prefer to have sex without the chance of conception. 

Women are not the only victims of the Republic of Gilead. The Sons of Jacob are given the opportunity to emigrate to Israel shortly after the democratic government is overthrown, although it seems that some enterprising captains would dump them into the sea after receiving payment and to increase the number of ‘passengers’ that they could carry. We also know that many Jews remain in Gilead but have to worship in secret because the Theocracy is exclusively Christian. The fate of the Children of Ham is far more disturbing. It seems that many of these African-Americans are considered suitable as the infertile Marthas who run the houses of their wealthy, white superiors. However, most are resettled into Homelands, mimicking the Reservations used to isolate and control the Native American population by the European invaders. No doubt these Homelands allow the people to live in the idle luxury that you would expect for those forcibly removed from a society. Again, this mirrors the continuing anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism that still pervades some sectors of US society.

I imagine that when Ms Atwood wrote this novel in 1985, she saw it as a commentary on the US of the time or the very recent past. We know that the feminism of the 1960s provoked a conservative backlash from the Christian right, and I am quite sure that she was inspired by seeing this during her studies at Harvard. I can appreciate how her Canadian upbringing would have made her very aware of the power that religious groups wield in the US, which was a shock to me when I first arrived. I find it frightening to think that many in the States would actually like to make the country into something so scarily similar to Gilead, and that it seems like a real possibility to me.

As a footnote, I was surprised and delighted that a revelation is made at the end of the book that shows that the grand state of Maine was a hotbed of moderates and people willing to help women escape to free Canada. It was particularly gratifying that Bangor itself was marked out as a particular place of tolerance.  

This was not a pleasant book to read, but it was powerful in a visceral, thought-provoking way that makes me understand why so many people rate it as one of their favorite books of all time. I would recommend that every person should read it, man or woman, because it shows us what could happen to the US if the right wing, religious conservatives ever get enough power to impose their beliefs on the rest of us.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Schedule for Fall

The meeting schedule will continue after the summer. 

The meetings will be at 6pm and I will post the meeting rooms once they have been finalized / finished.

22 September

20 October

17 November

15 December

Those of you who were at the May meeting will notice that I gave you the wrong date for September because I made a mistake predicting how the staff schedule would continue after the summer . . . doh!