Recommendations from Wisconsin

Genova, Lisa (2009)  Still Alice. Penguin. Alice Howland is a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics, with grown children and a satisfying marriage. When she starts to experience fleeting forgetfulness and disorientation, she initially attributes these episodes to normal aging or menopause. But as her symptoms worsen, she decides to see a neurologist and is given the diagnosis that will change her life forever – early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice is only 50 years old.  Lisa Genova’s book packs a powerful punch.

Gordon, Linda (2009) Dorothea Lange: A life beyond limits.  Norton.  In this sweeping account, Linda Gordon charts photographer Dorothea Lange’s journey from polio-ridden child to wife and mother, from San Francisco portrait photographer to chronicler of the Great Depression and Second World War. Gordon uses Lange’s life to anchor a social history of twentieth-century America, re-creating the bohemian world of San Francisco, the Dust Bowl and the Japanese-American internment camps.

Winspear, Jacqueline (2004) Maisie Dobbs.  Penguin.   Maisie Dobbs isn’t just any young housemaid. Through her own natural intelligence—and the patronage of her benevolent employers—she works her way into college at Cambridge. When World War I breaks out, Maisie goes to the front as a nurse.  After the War, Maisie sets up on her own as a private investigator. But her very first assignment, seemingly an ordinary infidelity case, soon reveals a much deeper, darker web of secrets, which will force Maisie to revisit the horrors of the Great War and the love she left behind.  The first in a series of Maisie Dodds stories; seven books to date.

Skloot, Rebecca (2010) Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Pan Macmillan. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells – taken without her knowledge – become one of the most important tools in modern medicine. Taken in 1951, these cells became the first immortal human cell line ever grown in culture. They were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered the secrets of cancer, viruses and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilisation, cloning, and gene mapping, and have been bought and sold by the billions. Rebecca Skloot takes us on an journey, from the “coloured” wards of Johns Hopkins in the 1950s to poverty stricken tenements of East Baltimore today, where Henrietta’s children are unable to afford health insurance, and struggle with feelings of pride, fear and betrayal. Their story is inextricably linked to the birth of bioethics, the rise of multi-billion dollar biotech industry, and the legal battles that determine if we own our bodies.

Barbery, Muriel (2008) The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Gallic Books. Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turns moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007. Recent movie.

De Rosnay, Tatiana (2008) Sara’s Key. St Martin’s Griffin. Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours. Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France’s past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d’Hiv’, to the camps, and beyond. Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.  Recent movie.

Lee, Y K (2009 ) The Piano Teacher.  Harper.   In 1942, Will Truesdale, an Englishman newly arrived in Hong Kong, falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their love affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese, with terrible consequences for both of them, and for members of their fragile community who will betray each other in the darkest days of the war. Ten years later, Claire Pendleton lands in Hong Kong and is hired by the wealthy Chen family as their daughter’s piano teacher. A provincial English newlywed, Claire is seduced by the colony’s heady social life. She soon begins an affair only to discover that her lover’s enigmatic demeanour hides a devastating past.

Rosenblatt, Roger (2010) Making Toast: a Family Story.  Harper Collins.  When his daughter, Amy, died suddenly of a heart condition, Roger Rosenblatt and his wife moved in with their son-in-law and their three young grandchildren. His story tells how a family makes the possible out of the impossible.

Bacevich, Andrew (2008) The Limits to Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.  Schwartz.  Andrew Bacevich, uniquely respected across the political spectrum, offers a fresh perspective on American illusions and looks to the future. He examines the myths that have governed US actions since 1945. Shared by policy-makers and citizens alike, these have culminated today in a triple crisis: an economy in disarray, an imperial-style government, and a military force engaged in endless war.

Gillespie, Ric (2009)  Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance. Naval Institute. In the seventy years since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan during a flight over the Central Pacific, their fate has remained one of history’s most debated mysteries despite dozens of books offering solutions. This book is different. It draws on thousands of never before published primary source documents to present a narrative that corrects decades of misconception. Ric Gillespie offers a very realistic picture of Earhart, her attempted world flight, the events surrounding her disappearance, and the U.S. government’s failed attempt to find her.

Ford, Jamie (2009) Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Ballantine. Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II.  As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.  This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war.

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