Wednesday, May 23
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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Real Lives Give Fiction a Run for Publishing Money

Who needs fiction, when people's real lives are just as fascinating? It's a banner year for invigorating tell-alls by and about women.

"Oprah: a Biography" by Kitty Kelley (Crown, 2010). The secrets of one of the world's richest woman are revealed in this unauthorized work by the intrepid biographer who has previously tackled Frank Sinatra, the Bush dynasty, the British royal family, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Kelley, who did 850 interviews and compiled almost 3,000 files in researching this book, submits her manuscripts to four sets of lawyers and says that she has never been sued.

So what do we discover? That Oprah has always been obsessed with sex abuse and teen pregnancy and racism, all problems in her own background. That she created trash TV - or at least programming where people's lives, no matter how down and dirty, were explored. That she was precocious and enormously talented, electrifying everyone she encountered. That she is so rich that she has trouble giving enough away, no matter how many Rolls Royce's she bestows at Christmas time or exclusive girls' schools she establishes in South Africa.

I've been impressed by Oprah since the first time I heard her - on a Chicago radio station while on a trip to visit family in Hammond. And she has been a boon to the book industry, dragging people out of their romance/action ruts into other avenues of literature. Now if she could only figure out a "good" way to spend all that cash!

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot (Crown, 2010). Critics agree that this is one of the best science books of this or any year. Skloot weaves together the history of human biotechnology with the moving story of the woman who made so much of it possible.

When Henrietta, a poor African-American mother of five, underwent cancer surgery in the Jim Crow wing of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, she never dreamed that her cervical cancer cells would be what the scientific world was waiting for - a cell line that would live and reproduce itself exponentially.

HeLa cells (He for Henrietta, La for Lacks) have been vital in cancer, virus, gene mapping, and other medical research and have been bought and sold by the billions. But basically ANY tissue taken from any patient is up for grabs, with no remuneration to the original owner. Skloot spent many hours with Lacks' children, who discovered the existence and importance of the HeLa cell line long after their mother's early death, and she tells their stories as well as exploring the bioethical issues of tissue research.

"A Ticket to the Circus: a Memoir" by Norris Church Mailer (Random House, 2010). Norman Mailer's sixth and last wife, to whom he was married for 32 years. She artfully relates the exhilarations and miseries of being married to the genius writer, and proves that she is a talented memoirist in her own right.

"Just Kids" by Patti Smith (Ecco, 2010). When rock singer Patti Smith was only 19 she left Philadelphia to seek fame and fortune in Manhattan. There she fell in with the equally young Robert Mapplethorpe, who went on to become a famous (and infamous) photographer. I've always loved Patti's music and poetry, so relished her words as well as the gorgeous Mapplethorpe portrait photos that dotted the book.

"Spoken from the Heart" by Laura Bush (Scribner, 2010). I've only gotten through Laura's college days, but can tell already that this is a gem. Just like its author, it seems honest, straightforward, and thoughtful.