August Round-Up: NPR Book Recommendations (30 before 30)

So, I listen to National Public Radio.  Yes. I’m one of *them.*

There are lots of wonderful things about NPR. For starters, I feel like I show up to work a smarter person because I’ve already heard the news. I often have “driveway moments” finishing up an interesting story.  My husband and I don’t always agree on politics, and it’s nice to get news from a mostly impartial source. In fact, I loved that while the other media outlets were going crazy during the Boston Marathon bombing (for example), NPR’s correspondent said, “We are not saying anything that has not been confirmed. So far we know xyz and that’s it. We’re not speculating.”  You have to respect that.

Another great thing about NPR besides their reporting is that they interview authors to get the story beyond the book, ask good questions, and really get you interested in their works.   The books this month are mostly nonfiction that I got interested in by hearing about them on NPR.  I originally heard about these books from The Diane Rehm Show, Fresh Air, and Talk of the Nation/Science Friday.  If you wish, the transcripts/shows/articles are on if you search the book title.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Melanie Benjamin 

While this is technically fiction, it is based on the extraordinary life of Lavinia “Vinne” Warren, aka Mrs. Tom Thumb. She was a proportionate dwarf who became famous by touring with P.T. Barnum and his other dwarf act, General Tom Thumb.  It talks about her family life– how she felt stuck until a shady cousin comes around seeking fame and fortune.

I originally heard about this book on The Diane Rehm Show.  This was an interesting book, to say the least.  It’s good, but I won’t be re-reading it.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
Wow. Just wow. This is the true story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who died of cervical cancer in the 1951.  Her doctor took some of her cancer cells to do research (without permission). And they keep growing. These cells, known as HeLa cells, are extremely unusual and have been key to discovering several medical breakthroughs. However, the family had no idea until the ’70s, and when they did find out, they didn’t understand what was going on.

Skloot’s book writes about both the history and the breakthroughs of the cells but focuses much of her book on Henrietta’s family. I listened to the audiobook and it was a great book. Fantastic research.  This has been on my list of books to read since I heard an interview with the author ages ago. In fact, I was pretty certain I heard about this book twice on NPR– Talk of the Nation and Fresh Air.   Very good.

Beautiful Souls, Eyal Press
This is a beautiful book. This is written by a journalist who wanted to explore why people did good. Not just didn’t do evil, but why they actively went against the evil that was being done.  What does it mean, and what does it cost, to follow your conscience? He profiles four incredible people: one Swiss guard that falsified Jewish reports to allow them in the country;  one unique Serbian soldier who “sorted” Serbs from Croats (and allowed many Croats to avoid beatings and possibly death); an Israeli soldier who refuses to occupy land; a whistle-blower from Stanford (a financial company).

I first heard about this book on Talk of the Nation. (Man, I’ll miss that show.) This book was short, and I was able to read it in a day.  It was fascinating and a worthwhile book to read. It makes you wonder what you would do in their place. I don’t know if I would have been so creative in my problem-solving, so bold in my actions. It was a lot to take in.

I thought the chapter on the whistleblower was very appropriate after the Edward Snowden stuff. Here are some interesting quotes that go with that:

  • “To judge by Time’s cover story back in 2002,  whistleblowers were harassed and vilified until proven right, at which point they morphed into folk heroes.  In reality, being right not infrequently made things worse. For if the person who blew the whistle was justified, what did this say about all the people who didn’t? About the team players who’d profited handsomely by remaining silent?” (167)
  • According to a 2006 study conduced by Claude Fischer, 45% of Americans said people should on occasion follow their conscience even if it means breaking the law. Compared with Europeans, Americans “consistently answer questions in a way that favors the group over the individual… should follow a boss’s orders even if the boss is wrong… defer to church leaders.” (152).
  • Continuing with that study, “precisely because [the U.S.] was so free and open, many Americans viewed expressions of dissent as superfluous– or worse, indulgent, an abuse of the tolerance and liberty for which citizens ought to be grateful…. a higher proportion of U.S. citizens agreed that ‘people should support their country even if the country is in the wrong.'” (152-153).
  • All this to say, no wonder Snowden is going through what he’s going through.

In conclusion, my stuff this month was a little heavy.  I will continue to read books I hear about from NPR because if nothing else, the interviews I hear give me a better background about the book. I admit, the books I read this month were good, but Death Comes to Pemberley  got a huge thumbs down (and NPR got me excited about it 😦 .)


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Filed under 30 Before 30 (Themed Monthly Updates), Realistic

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