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Smith College Alumnae Reading Suggestions
From Bethanne Patrick '85, book critic, journalist and author
|The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My friend and National Book Critics Circle colleague Rebecca Skloot got interested in Henrietta Lacks during a high-school science class and spent a decade of her adult career researching and writing this literally unputdownable book. Lacks was a poor African-American woman in Baltimore who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the early 1950s. Unbeknownst to her and her family, researchers harvested some of her cancerous and healthy cells -- and because those cells reproduce so well, a few slim test tubes have multiplied into 50 million metric tons of research material that have made modern cancer studies possible. What makes Skloot's book so compelling is how she has given a voice to the deceased Henrietta Lacks (whose cells are known as "HeLa") and her family, who until now had never seen a single benefit from what was taken from their matriarch.
|Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett
I wasn't an Econ major (I did take micro AND macro, but I didn't do well in either), and I'm not sure if I will ever understand high finance, but at least in Adam Haslett's beautifully crafted first novel I can understand something of how its doings shake out in society. The book's protagonist, Doug Fanning, is the kind of post-9/11 profiteer who has ice in his veins but needs none in his drinks; he takes his pleasures differently and furtively, which shows when he builds a hideous McMansion in a historic Massachusetts town but puts almost nothing inside of it. Unfortunately for Fanning, the book's hero is an elderly woman named Charlotte Graves whose modest and ramshackle historic home is in the shadow of the new monstrosity. Graves may talk to her two dogs (one of whom channels Cotton Mather), but she has a kind of canny sense for right and wrong that affects Fanning, a teenager she tutors named Nate Fuller, and her brother Henry -- who just happens to chair the Federal Reserve.
|A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan never writes the same book twice, and watching her path and growth as a prose stylist is one of the great pleasures afforded to those of us who still review books. In this new novel, she follows a very loose group of characters that fan in and out like the bellows of an accordion (ironic, considering that many of them are in the much more modern music business of the early 1980s to the present). I hate to give away the tiny but significant conceit of the title, so will instead just urge you to watch out for it. Another part of the book I'll urge you to watch out for and pay attention to is the "PowerPoint" chapter -- talk about a tour de force!