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My Food For Thought: 12 Books I Recommend

Posted on 25 December 2011 by Barbara Beckwith (16)

The Call , by Yannick Murphy (Harper, 2011). The format of his novel – it’s written as a veterinarian’s daily log, intrigued me. I started reading but wondered how a logbook can possibly “work” as a novel. How can the author develop a plot? But she did, and her format elucidates the main character’s psychology. The author‘s husband is a Vermont vet, and the book was a 2011 National Book Award finalist in fiction.

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka (Knopf, 2011) another 2011 National Book Award fiction finalist. It, too, is written unconventionally: in the first person plural (“We”). I doubted this would work in a novel, but it does. This the story of “picture brides” brought from Japan to the U.S. early in the 20th century, by Japanese men seeking wives. The “we” form lets us see their commonality but also to appreciate their diversity, and their individual ways of coping.

A Star Called Henry, by Roddy Doyle. Jon and I both read this raucus novel while we were in Dublin. [Jon “It gave me a real feeling for what life in Dublin was like, and fit what I saw there”]. Henry and his brother Victor are street urchins whose one-legged assassin dad and crazy, alcoholic mother, had more kids than they can care for. The boys turn to robbery and are eventually recruited into Michael Collins’ revolutionaries. They take part in the Post Office rebellion against the British, and then face retaliation. Jon will read another in Doyle’s novel series on our post-Christmas reading weekend.

The Irish Famine, by Peter Grey (Thames & Hudson). This book was an eye-opener: the Irish Famine was not just a matter of a failed potato harvest, as I had always thought. The famine could have been averted if farmers were allowed to grow other crops but the British plantation owners insisted that they export all non-potato foods to Britain, while 1 million Irish died of starvation and sickness, and another 1 million fled the county for the U.S., cutting Ireland’s population in half and leading to a long period of poverty, which may have affected my great-grandmother, Winifred Flanagan Moore, born in 1850 in Mayo County.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Reb ecca Skloot (Crown, 2010). Scientists have been using “HeLa” cells since the 1950s. This is the story of an African American woman whose cells, after she died of cervical cancer, were reproduced by scientists who went on to develop the polio vaccine and other medical advances. This was before informed consent regulations, so it’s also the history of bad scientific/medical practices, especially towards people of color, an example of scientists’ incompetence at communicating with non-scientists, and the story of Lacks’ daughter’s determined to understand the science her mother’s cells were part of, and to have that contribution honored.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). A short novel set in New Jersey and in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. It made me understand the epidemic that caused our mother to make us wear gloves whenever we went to “the city” and to take us to the country – not just for fun but to keep us safe. The novel also shows how polio victim “cripples’ were hidden away and how suspected “carriers” were shunned.

Knowing Jesse: A Mother’s Story of Grief, Grace, and Everyday Bliss, by Marianne Leone (Simon & Schuster, 2010). The author spoke about her memoir at a National Writers Union program. What impressed me was the ferocity of her love and determination that her son Jesse, born with cerebral palsy, which left him paraplegic, subject to seizures and unable to speak, be recognized as smart, talented, and capable to being mainstreamed at school, where he excelled at both Latin and poetry. The author is married to the actor, Chris Cooper (they live in our area).

Seeing Patients: Unconscious Bias in Health Care, by Augustus A. White III, M.D. , with David Chanoff (Harvard University Press, 2011). Dr. White is Professor of Medical Education and Orthopedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School and the first African American department chief at Harvard’s teaching hospitals. He shows how unconscious bias persists and leads to gender, race and age health disparities. He reports double-blind studies: one in which when men and women report similar heart symptoms and stresses in their lives, doctors are more likely to believe that the men had organize heart disease but that the women’s stress was due to psychological disorders. Another: doctors in hospitals call white patients Mr. or Mrs. and draw curtains to protect their privacy during breast exams, but those same doctors call Black patients by their first names and do not bother to draw privacy curtains. Dr. White also describes bias he faced in the course of his career.

Finding Oprah’s Roots – Finding Your Own, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Crown, 2007) I just finished this fascinating account (also shown on TV) of the search for Oprah’s ancestors, via documents and DNA. It made me realize the significance for African Americans of recovering – and honoring – and being inspired by – ancestors who managed to get an education, buy land, and build careers, despite the barriers of legal and interpersonal racism. It made me want to know more about my ancestors: to find inspiring models among them.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (New Press, 2010). Alexander was a keynote speaker at an anti-racism conference I attended. She documents how President Reagan’s “War on Drugs” targeted communities of color and put enormous numbers of Blacks and Latinos in prison: how prosecutors pile on charges to get these men to accept guilty pleas in exchange for shorter jail time, not telling them that once they get out, a felony charge will prevent them from getting jobs, form voting (in many states), from food stamps, from public housing, from getting licenses in many professions, from serving on juries, from educational opportunities.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins (Back Bay Books, 2010). A book about what it for women in the 60s, when stewardesses got fired if they married or aged; when Radcliffe’s male president told students: your education will prepare you to be “splendid wives and mothers”; when doctors who found a breast malignancy asked husbands to sign the permission to operate “because women were too emotionally and irrationally tied to their breasts.” And about ground-breakers who challenged those views.

Let’s Get Real: What People of Color Can’t Say & Whites Won’t Ask About Racism, by Lee Mun Wah. Community therapist and documentary filmmaker ( “The Color of Fear” and “If These Halls Could Talk”) collected a range of responses to questions he asked people of color (eg: “What would you say to whites if you could tell them the truth about racism?”) and questions he asked white people (eg. “What are some of the things you are afraid to say to people of color?”). I’m one of the people he quotes.

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