I don’t usually pay much attention to lists of “Top 10 Books” that come out at the end of each year. They tend to be too much like those annoying, whitewashed annual holiday letters:
Look how artsy I am! I could not put down that impenetrable novel you tossed after 10 pages! See how smart I am! I loved that biography that weighs more than the chair I sat in to read it!
This year, though, I read two books I knew had to make every list. The first was The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Journey of America’s Great Migration (Random House). I had the good luck to review Isabel Wilkerson’s book for The Seattle Times.
Many of us see the history of African Americans as bracketed by slavery and the televised moments of the 1950s-’60s civil-rights movement. Coverage of Barack Obama’s historic election replayed those midcentury milestones: cruel, brave, jubilant, violent moments. The past unrolled in footage of powerful speeches; attack dogs and fire hoses; a dignified, unblinking dark-skinned girl walking into a Southern school with white adults screaming abuse all around her.
Isabel Wilkerson’s exceptional book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” moves the story to a much larger screen, as she chronicles the migration of some six million African Americans who left the South behind between World War I and the 1970s. Her extensive demographic and social-history research, thousands of interviews and select oral histories create a fresh, rich book.
Wilkerson is getting well deserved recognition right and left. She’s already won a Pulitzer for her work at The New York Times – now she’ll likely get another.
The other book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown) by Rebecca Skloot. It’s a fascinating story (enough so that Oprah will movie-ize it soon) and Skloot’s crafting of the science and human stories is nothing short of brilliant.
I noted its publication on this blog:
Cells from Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient in the 1950s, started something that seems more magical than scientific. Johns Hopkins doctors who took the cells from Lacks, a poor African American farmer, never imagined creating HeLa – the “immortal” cells grown in culture that live on and save lives around the world. This is tireless, deep reporting sensitively done and written with unusual clarity. The very talented Skloot erases the line between lab and humanity with inspiring deftness.
Skloot’s book has attracted great press. Yet some of the year-end lists of Top Ten do not include it. Hello? This makes zero sense.
Maybe it has something to do with the publication date — long ago in February 2010. We have short memories in this society. But, still.
An exception is critic Dwight Garner’s list. He’s the sharp book dude at The New York Times–the one who avoids making a review more about himself, something most of his peers seem unable to avoid. Garner’s a fine writer with encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary publishing and a charming sense of humor. Again, all too rare among the professional book junkies. His review of Skloot’s book was typically well done.
Garner also had the catchiest, most fitting one-liner of any book review in 2010:
“A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of “Erin Brockovich,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “The Andromeda Strain.” More than 10 years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.’”
Garner produced 2010′s best list — and yes, it appears I am now on the way to compiling the “Top Ten Lists” list.” Well, someone had to do it.