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What We're Reading, Feb. 2 - 8, 2010

Things fall apart in Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag. A woman's gift to science yields medical miracles — and outrage — in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. What will America be like with one-third more people? A strangely optimistic answer in The Next Hundred Million. And a teenager traces down a tragic family mystery in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky.

'Shadow Tag' book cover

Shadow Tag

A Novel

By Louise Erdrich

Shadow Tag is the story of a marriage unraveling. Irene America, a Native-American scholar with a drinking problem and a long unfinished thesis weighing down on her confidence, is married to Gil, a Native-American painter famous for his stunning and sometimes degrading depictions of his favorite and only model, his wife. As the book begins, Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary, and so she begins a new one. It's a fake diary that she fills with untruths aimed at deliberately planting doubts about her fidelity in her husband's mind. As the tension between the couple intensifies, their three children become watchful and wary of their father's violent outbursts, fearing a final break that would change their lives forever.

If it weren't for Louise Erdrich's gift for storytelling, this grim tale might be hard to take. But somehow Erdrich's depiction of this family tragedy leaves the reader wanting and needing to know what happens next as things inexorably fall apart. The battling couple, Irene and Gil, passionately attracted to and deeply repelled by each other, are not the most sympathetic characters you'll ever meet. But you get caught up in their lives, hoping somehow that things will turn out alright 'for the sake of the children.' Because it's the children who capture your heart. They are quirky, smart, sensitive and devastatingly vulnerable. And you know that even if they survive their father's bitter anger and their parents' endless battle, they won't be undamaged. The novel's ending feels like one of those movies where you think the climax has been reached and, just as you begin to breathe normally, a new twist springs up and leaves you stunned. — Lynn Neary, NPR books and publishing correspondent

Hardcover, 272 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99, publication date: Feb. 2

'Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks' book cover

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

If you've been inoculated against polio or asked to sign a document outlining your patient's privacy rights before a medical procedure, you owe a debt to Henrietta Lacks. Medical writer Rebecca Skloot has given us a seamless narrative about the brief life and death of Lacks, an obscure patient whose cervical cells (taken during a biopsy, without her knowledge, let alone permission) became the basis for a medical miracle: the in vitro replication of human cells. The cells were named HeLa, in honor of their unwitting donor. Over the past 50 years, HeLa cells have become a multibillion dollar industry, used for everything from AIDS research to in vitro fertilization. Despite that, the Lacks family has received no compensation for Lacks' harvested cells — they still live in poverty in the shadow of the hospital that first cloned them.

If I tried to get you to read this by telling you it's a riveting science book about human cell replication, I'd lose you at 'science,' right? But Skloot's narrative is an engrossing read that rightfully raises questions about disparity in treatment because of race and class, invasion of privacy, who owns our body parts after they're removed from our bodies and how patenting cells affects medical research. Remember news reports last year of some black communities not wanting to receive H1N1 shots when they were available because some didn't trust the government-distributed vaccine? That doesn't seem so paranoid when you learn what Henrietta went through during her illness and treatment. Reading this, you find yourself becoming indignant on behalf of the Lacks family. The knowledge that their mother made a signal contribution to medical science made her children proud, but it also wreaked a heartbreaking chaos on their lives. — Karen Grigsby Bates, correspondent, NPR News

Hardcover, 368 pages, Crown, list price: $26, publication date: Feb. 2

'Next Hundred Million' book cover

The Next Hundred Million

America in 2050

By Joel Kotkin

By 2050, the U.S. will add a staggering 100 million people. Yet daunting as that seems, futurist Joel Kotkin lays out a sunny vision of a newly dynamic American economy and culture. For one thing, consider the alternative: Kotkin says other industrialized nations will struggle with stagnant, even shrinking populations. So, how will America accommodate so many more people? Think Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas; and if that thought depresses you, Kotkin says, think again. He believes these "cities of aspiration" will replace traditional gateways, such as New York, in providing upward mobility to new arrivals. Kotkin also envisions a more diverse, older and self-sufficient form of suburbia, where three-generation households make a comeback, and technology allows more people to work at home. It's not the vision environmentalists might like (Denser, greener cities? Sorry, he says, Americans still love cars). But Kotkin says a "new localism" will produce its own energy savings.

Joel Kotkin has researched prodigiously on an impressive array of economic and social issues. After all, what aspect of life won't be affected by such rapid population growth? But it can be frustrating that he doesn't slow down to drill deeper on some topics. His prognosis is also so optimistic that Kotkin can sound less like a dispassionate journalist and more like a development consultant — which, in fact, he is. Still, Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

Hardcover, 320 pages, Penguin Press, list price: $25.95, publication date: Feb. 4

'Girl Who Fell from the Sky' book cover

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

By Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is part mystery, part coming of age tale. The story is set in the 1980s in a mostly black neighborhood of Portland, Ore., where 11-year-old Rachel Morse has come to live with her grandmother after an unspeakable family tragedy. (For much of the book, the characters never speak about what happened — which only adds to Rachel's isolation). Rachel, daughter of a Danish mother and an African-American father, is quite literally trying to make sense of her color, neither fully black nor fully white. "There are fifteen black people in the class and seven white people. And there's me. There's another girl who sits in the back. Her name is Carmen LaGuardia, and she has hair like mine, my same color skin, and she counts as black. I don't understand how, but she seems to know." Rachel is not the only narrator of this story; Durrow's tale flows from character to character as the mystery behind what happened to Rachel's family unravels.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is the most recent recipient of the Bellwether Prize. Founded (and funded) by author Barbara Kingsolver, the award promotes 'socially responsible literature.' While that sounds slightly medicinal, this book is anything but. Rachel's voice resonated in my reading mind in much the same way as did that of the young protagonist of The House on Mango Street. There's an achingly honest quality to it; both wise and naive, it makes you want to step between the pages to lend comfort. — Shannon Rhoades, supervising senior editor, Morning Edition

Hardcover, 256 pages, Algonquin Books, list price: $22.95, publication date: Jan. 11

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