Thursday, October 13, 2011

BOOKS --Recent Non-fiction Favorites

I have read several books in the past year that have stuck with me. They left such an impact that I think about them almost daily ---and recommend them to anyone who will listen to my rave reviews.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The author's narrative reminds me of a detective novel, with the writer searching for clues to solve the mystery of the HeLa cells that were taken from Henrietta before she died of cancer in 1951 and how they have aided medical research ever since. Skloot needed to research the lives of Henrietta Lacks and her family members and gain their trust, a difficult task because the family had little reason to trust outsiders.

It was one of those books I could not stop reading. It also brought up issues I had never considered —--that our cells and tissues can be used without our knowledge or approval.

In August, I roamed airport shops while waiting for a flight from Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil) to Rio de Janeiro ---and found a Portuguese translation A Vida Imortal de Henrietta Lacks. I'm so glad the book is being sold worldwide, for it was not only an entertaining read, it was an important book about medical ethics.

At Home by Bill Bryson

Bryson, born in Iowa (coincidentally) the year Henrietta Lacks died, had been living in England for many years in an old house. In this book, he roams from room to room, telling the story or how each room, as well as the things in it, came to be.

Bryson's writing is informative but also compelling and extremely witty. It is history, archeology, etymology, sociology, science, invention, and humor all rolled into one.

Turn right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams

I visited Machu Picchu in 1969 and ever since, I have been fascinated by its history and its mysteries.  I have read several accounts of Hiram Bingham III's life and his "discovery" of what many termed the Lost City of the Incas.  (We all know that Bingham discovered the archeological site in the same manner that Columbus "discovered" America, as if no indigenous people ever lived in either place.)  This book caught my eye at the library because of my prior interest in the subject.

Author Mark Adams worked for several adventure publications, but never engaged in any adventure of his own. But after reading the controversy over whether Bingham,  the "discoverer" of Machu Picchu had stolen important Peruvian artifacts and whether or not Yale was obliged to return them to Peru, he decided to research the matter and follow in Bingham's footsteps.
"Have you ever seen Mr. Travel Guy? He's the fellow who strides through international airports dressed like he's flying off to hunt wildebeests - shirt with dozens of pockets, drip-dry pants that zip off into shorts, floppy hat with a cord pulled tight under the chin in case a twister blows through the baggage claim area. All of this describes exactly what I was wearing. I could have been trick-or-treating as Hemingway."
The book tells the tale of Adam's physically-demanding trek through Peru with an Australian guide, John Leivers, who seemed to be Bingham's kindred spirit. Adams interspersed his own story with the history of the Spanish takeover of the Incan Empire and Bingham's own treks through Peru in search of important archeological finds.

Adams has an entertaining writing style and seems to have adopted Bill Bryson's humor to make this an informative and humorous read.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

I haven't finished reading this book yet, so I will withhold a review of it (although I have greatly enjoyed Vowell's previous works.)  Vowell, much like Bryson and Adams, has a quirky style of humor which makes her take on history engaging.

This book tells how New England missionaries, led by none other than Hiram Bingham (yes, that Hiram Bingham's grandfather,) attempted to Christianize the paradise then known as the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii, and make it into an uptight version of New England. Missionaries strived to prevent the native women from having sex with seamen ---and thus prevent the obvious diseases they would contract ----yet the natives believed that it was the missionaries who would "pray us all to death."

I mention this book here because the day I returned Turn Right at Machu Picchu to the library, Vowell's book was waiting for me on the hold shelf.  As soon as she mentioned missionaries, I wondered if Hiram Bingham's grandfather and father (Hiram Bingham II) would come up ---and there they were.

Hiram III was expected to become a missionary, too, but he had other plans.  He married Alfreda Mitchell (of the Tiffany family) which allowed him to become an adventurer on his meager university salary and father 8 sons between expeditions.

1 comment:

Jenners said...

I read and loved both Henrietta Lacks and At Home ... and I plan on reading Vowell's book as well. I guess I should check out the other one as well!