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Thursday, March 1, 2012

World Book Night: Those I've Read

Of the thirty books being dispensed on World Book Night I've only read six. I must say, that makes me a little sad - like maybe my finger isn't on the pulse of the literary world. I am happy to be remedying some of the more glaring holes in my reading repertoire; I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I've never read Maya Angelou and I cannot tell you how many times I've received a shame-filled stare and teenage tut-tutting when I happen to mention that I haven't read "The Hunger Games". Before April 23rd I'll have at least another twenty four holes filled. I'll be posting my responses to the books here as I read them, but first I wanted to talk about about those I've already read.

"A Prayer for Owen Meany" was the first John Irving book I read and since then I have read one of his novels every year. Irving is so wonderful that I can't allow myself to read him all in one go - I'm pacing myself which makes that one book each year all the more glorious.

Owen Meany is God's instrument. His entire life, as sad and difficult as it often is, can be measured up against this statement. Owen was born with quite a few problems. He has a weak heart, a weird voice, and a tiny stature, but none of this will stand in the way of him performing God's Will - not in any way that he knows of I might add. Owen Meany knows his destiny is huge and he has surrendered to it.

John Irving's novels are always heavily plotted, and with this one in particular Owen's martyrdom is what pushes the book forward. However, as is the case with all of Irving's novels, it is what is said and not really what happens that is most important. This is truly a book about
faith and morality.

Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" is one of those novels that has stuck with me, but not in a good way. I read this book a few years ago and while I didn't hate it, I definitely recall much more of what I did not like about it than what I did. I'll start with what I liked though. I liked the way the book opened. You knew that Susie was going to die from the first sentence. I think that's a daring way to begin a novel. The author has to work harder to make the reader care about a character that we know is going to die. Characters can be flat and distant if we know what's coming for them, but Sebold challenged this to good effect. I also really enjoyed Sebold's heaven - she created a beautiful and tragic fantasy. But what I couldn't stand, what my mind is left with, is the ending. I laughed, I rolled my eyes, I lost the goodwill I had for these characters. A bad ending can ruin a good book, and for me that was the case with "The Lovely Bones".

When I read "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" I was awed. Henrietta's story, Rebecca Skloot's research, the scope of the entire incident/book/etc... just floored me. This book altered my worldview. Skloot forces her readers to look at big ethical questions about informed consent and how medical research (or scientific research in general) is done. I actually read this book for the store's bookclub and it was on of the best discussions we've had yet. There are some issues here that are black and white, but on the whole the saga of the Lacks family is difficult to reconcile. The loss of their mother and the facts of poverty are both devastating. The manner in which the medical establishment handled the family and their questions is unfortunate, but what rights do they really have to the HeLa cells? It never occurred to me to think about my appendix and my ownership of it before. Will that appendix still be mine if it's not inside of me? Will it be more 'mine' if it turns out to be profitable and would I be willing to spend the money funding research and testing to determine whether or not it was profitable then mining the legal and medical fields to establish myself in the body parts business in order to profit from my appendix. That's an incredibly simplified version of events, but you can see that even there all of the issues get murky. Rebecca Skloot's book debates this issue and so many others using what happened to Henrietta Lacks and her cells as well as several cases wherein the doctors or research scientists did not have the best interest of their patients at heart. This is also the story of the Lacks family as the personalities that they inject into book humanize the subject matter and allow us to look at the people on the other side of the science.

Finally, "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak. I have wanted to write about this book since I read it a year ago, but I just haven't been able to. This is a book that needs to be felt. I really still cannot think of what to tell you about it, even something as simple as a reaction. The book is about WWII, it is narrated by death. It is absolutely gut wrenching and you should read it. That's really all I can leave you with; you should read it.

I've written previously about "Just Kids" and "Little Bee". I look forward to reading the rest of the World Book Night titles and responding to them here.

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