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Tag Archives: non-fiction

How to satisfy picky readers

In five easy steps:

1. Have a good title. 

I can’t really explain what makes a good title for me, but it is VERY important.  Single words are generally less likely to attract my attention.  Some examples of books with good titles that I randomly picked up based on name alone:

Travels With Barley

City of Ember

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Good Grief

2.  Attractive cover art

Again, this is hard to pin down; however, if you have a mediocre title with an awesome dust jacket, I might pick up the book to read a little more. Not looking stupid is the main thing.  I avoided what is now one of my all time favorite books for many years because the cover looked stupid:

Those are even in order of least to most uninteresting.

This is the one that finally caught my eye:

Another book that has been recommended to me several times in the last week that I think looks totally boring:

Up til just now, I thought those were chickens.  Anyways…

3.  Use appropriate margins and text size.

I used to give my students a hard time if they picked up a book, flipped through it, and put it back on the shelf without reading a word, usually announcing that the words were too little/many on a page/many in general.  I’m guilty of this myself, though.  I like a book with enough of a margin that I can hold it without covering up too many words.  If you need more pages, use them.  Don’t just shrink your margins like a college kid trying to meet a professor’s criteria. I also hate when lines are too close together.  If I can’t track my place easily, you’re losing my vote.

4.  Equal parts character development and plot

I read a really interesting article about which makes for a better story: a strong plot with lots of twists or a character-based story.  I do enjoy strong characters and internal conflict, but too much of it gets boring quickly.  Same goes for too many twists in the plot.  The balance is tough, but worth the work.

5.  Good writing style.

The top offenses here include: not enough dialogue; too much dialogue (without tags); cliched descriptions; pretentious prose. . .the list goes on.  Again, I might flip through a few pages, but too much description or overly written scenes land the book right back on the shelf.

Of course, the obvious answers are the easy ones:

Fall into one of my current interests.  Recently I have devoured multiple books on the following topics:

Mt Everest; Abraham Lincoln; Catholicism; the Appalachian Trail; serial killers; Anne Frank

Be one of my favorite writers (or have a review/prologue/introduction by them):

Elizabeth Peters; John Krakauer; Bill Bryson, Gillian Bradshaw; Orson Scott Card; J K Rowling; Rick Riordan. . .again, the list is long

Come with a strong recommendation.  This one is not always successful, but if I really like you, I might read a book you suggest to me.  Which is why I am off to find a book by the name of “The Post Office,” suggested to me by a super-cute guy at the airport.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The first of my promised book reviews (non-fiction). One down, five to go.

Henrietta Lacks helped develop medical advances we take for granted every day. She contributed to common vaccines, cancer research, and the educations of cellular biologists the world over. Henrietta Lacks changed the world unknowingly.

Diagnosed with cervical cancer in the early 1950’s, Henrietta was a patient at Johns Hopkins. Her doctor, on a quest to develop a sustainable cell line, took a sample of her cancerous cells without her knowledge. Against all odds, he was successful in creating a cell line. Unfortunately, the odds were also against Henrietta. The same miraculous reproductive ability of her cancer cells that made her doctor’s experiment a success allowed her cancer to destroy her body. Henrietta the woman died a painful death in 1951 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Henrietta the cell culture was renamed HeLa and lives on to this day.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot explored the history of the HeLa cell line, from its contributions to modern medicine to the genealogy of Henrietta herself. Through years of research, patience, and perseverance, Skloot was able to ingratiate herself with the Lacks family. The Immortal Life tells the story of Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and her struggle accepting her mother’s role in science.

While Skloot claims to explore Henrietta’s history, her family’s legacy, and her contributions to science, the final product is also a story about writing a story. Information about Henrietta is scarce; the reader learns little about who Henrietta was personally, although her daughter is well-developed. Skloots tenuous relationship with Deborah and attempts to develop relationships with other family members is interspersed with HeLa’s contributions to science. Cell cultures, vaccine developments, informed consent, and DNA all feature in HeLa’s impressive curriculum vitae.

An engrossing read, well-researched and informational, Skloot’s first book is worthwhile. It exposes injustices; shines a much-needed light on the failings of healthcare, and Skloots quest provided the Lacks’ with the answers to questions they could not form on their own. If you want the story of the mother of HeLa, however, there is little to be found in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. While her cells are intimately known to scientists around the world and her family is exposed to armchair scientists, Henrietta herself remains largely a mystery.

3.5 of 5 stars

Coming soon… Stiff: The Curious Life Of Human Cadavers