by Lauren Williams, Public Services Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune .
For only the second time in the 10-year history of our community-wide reading program, the public has chosen a nonfiction title as its One Read  selection. However, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ”(Crown Publishers, 2009) by Rebecca Skloot is no ordinary true story. Skloot takes the reader on a journey both epic and intimate as she tries to discover the person behind one of the most important tools in medicine. Lacks was a poor Southern tobacco farmer, yet her cells — taken without her knowledge — became the key to developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more. The community chose this compelling work of narrative nonfiction over runner-up selection “The Help ” (Amy Einhorn Books, 2009) by Kathryn Stockett, a tale of the struggle of black maids in 1962 Jackson, Miss., and a young white writer who attempts to tell their stories.
Before the public vote, a reading panel of community members considered 10 finalist books. Here is an overview of these titles, exploring subjects as varied as the Civil War, an immigrant’s experience in America and how the Internet affects the way we think.
Let’s begin this list by considering lists. They save lives. In “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right ” (Metropolitan Books, 2010), Atul Gawande discusses the ways in which this simple tool helps people — from pilots and surgeons to construction workers — manage very complex processes and avoid fatal errors. Nicholas Carr also talks about complexity in his work, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains ” (W.W. Norton, 2010), but he focuses on the way our use of the Internet affects our memories, as well as the ability to perform complex tasks such as deep reading and sustained concentration.
Childhood memories take center stage in Bich Minh Nguyen’s “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner ” (Viking, 2007). A Vietnamese refugee, Nguyen’s memoir chronicles her coming of age in Grand Rapids, Mich., and her hunger for all things American, including Pringles, Kool-Aid and the sandwiches on white bread forbidden by her Latina stepmother. Her relationship to food provides a fitting metaphor for Nguyen’s struggle to straddle two cultures and belong.
“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears ” (Riverhead Books, 2007) by Dinaw Mengetsu considers similar themes of belonging and is steeped in the almost poetic despair of losing one’s homeland. Ethiopian immigrant Sepha Stephanos runs a failing convenience store in a poor area of Washington, D.C. Gentrification brings some hope for his business and an unexpected friendship with a white woman and her daughter who restore an old home in the neighborhood, but escalating racial tensions threaten to leave him as isolated as he found himself when he first arrived in America.
From the theme of immigration, the reading panel moved on to war, reading two works of historical fiction. “Up From Thunder ” (Cave Hollow Press, 2010) by local author Susan K. Salzer captures the brutal effects of the Civil War in Missouri through the story of 16-year-old Hattie Rood’s romantic encounter with a wounded Jesse James. In “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society ” (Dial Press, 2008), Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows give us a charming pager-turner of a novel made up entirely of letters. The correspondence exchanged between writer Juliet Ashton and natives of Guernsey, the British island occupied by the Nazis during World War II, vividly portray the island’s inhabitants and the deep effects of the German occupation on their lives. The letter being such an intimate form of writing, the reader quickly comes to know and care about this literary society, born during the war as a spur-of-the-moment alibi to protect its members from arrest.
The panel’s final two selections reflect the post Sept. 11, 2001, world in very different ways. In Michael Gruber’s intricately plotted thriller “The Good Son ” (Henry Holt, 2010), Sonia Laghari, a writer and Jungian therapist, is kidnapped in Kashmir along with the rest of the attendees at a conference on peace. Her son, a special operations soldier, plots her rescue as the terrorists threaten to behead one of the captives for each Muslim life taken by “the infidels.” Sonia uses her knowledge of the Islamic faith, Jungian psychology and the language of dreams to attempt her own rescue of sorts. Gruber weaves an extremely relevant and suspenseful tale with complex characters, plot twists and fascinating details about modern jihadism.
The effects of terrorism are felt closer to home in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ” (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) by Jonathan Safran Foer. Told in the precocious voice of 9-year-old Oskar, this highly original and moving story is full of the boy’s longing for his father, killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Oskar, a self-proclaimed inventor, actor, tambourine player and scientist, is on a quest to find the lock that fits a mysterious key found in his father’s closet in an envelope labeled “Black.” Funny, experimental, heartbreaking and uplifting all at the same time, Oskar’s journey explores what it means to go on living after such great loss.
Please join the library staff and One Read  task force in September as we present programs related to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ,” including a discussion of the runner-up, “The Help .” Visit the One Read Web site  for more details.