The Best Reads Of 2010

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Host Michel Martin reviews the best books of 2010 with Salon.com book critic Laura Miller. Miller's list of favorites includes the true story of an African-American woman whose cells are immortalized by scientists as well as a book about living under constant surveillance in North Korea. The novel Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans also makes the list.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Maybe this year you managed to catch a few movies like The Social Network, The Book of Eli, or Sex in the City. But what about films like Mother and Child, Machete or Greenberg? We'll take a look at some of the best films you probably missed this year, at least according to critic Wesley Morris. That is in just a few minutes.

But first, we browse through some of the best books of 2010. For example, The True Story of the Immortal Life of an African-American Woman. There was a book about living under constant surveillance in North Korea, and a collection of stories that remind us of what it's like to grow up and find love and friendship.

To talk more about some of the bests of 2010, we're joined by Laura Miller. She's a book critic for salon.com, and she's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. LAURA MILLER (Book Critic, Salon.com): It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the books that you picked. One was a non-fiction book called, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Ms. MILLER: Well, this is a book by a journalist named Rebecca Skloot, and it's based on the sort of life and afterlife of a woman named Henrietta Lacks whose cells were taken when she was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University in the '50s, or I think it was around 1960 that they took the cells.

And by some coincidence of miracle of biology, her cells turned out to be practically the only human cells that are easy to culture in the lab. And they've, you know, made possible all kinds of medical breakthroughs.

And then Rebecca Skloot paralleled the story of Henrietta Lacks's descendants who were poor African-Americans in the Baltimore area who could never afford health insurance and, you know, didn't have access to the kind of education that would enable them to even understand what their ancestor's cells were being used for.

And, you know, occasionally they would have contact with the, you know, medical research establishment to sort of - they would come back and take their blood samples and try to figure out why these cells were so exceptional, and they didn't understand what was going on, and they were scared, and they thought they were being tested for cancer. Then they thought that they were being exploited.

It's kind of an amazing story of both this sort of wonderful medical freak occurrence that benefited the whole world, and then this parallel story of this family who were just sort of cut off from all of those benefits.

MARTIN: This sounds like it could be kind of a dry technical tome about cell research, but it is not.

Ms. MILLER: No.

MARTIN: It has all these elements of, you know, race, class, and history. And so I just want to play a short clip from the author. It's an interview with the author, Rebecca Skloot, and she spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about the controversy over the tissue sample itself, and about the race and class dynamics in the story.

(Soundbite of Interview with Author, Rebecca Skloot)

Ms. REBECCA SKLOOT (Author, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks): This story's been held up as one of, you know, a white researcher who realized a woman's cells were - a black woman's cells are valuable, took those cells and maybe didn't treat her, you know, because he wanted to keep the cells alive, and none of that is true.

George Guy actually didn't even know she was black for quite awhile. And they were taking samples from any woman who came into the hospital which was standard, and there were no ethical violations in terms of the practices of the day.

But you also sort of can't take race out of the equation. She, you know, she was at Hopkins because she was black and because she was poor. It's also very much a story of class.

MARTIN: So Laura, tell us why you picked this as one of the best books of 2010. What made it so great?

Ms. MILLER: Well, there are many great science journalists, but they often have a hard time synching the story of scientific developments back into a broader social picture. And Rebecca Skloot really was able to do that with this book. And furthermore, you know, her own role was very interesting because she became the intermediary between this family and this scientific establishment.

MARTIN: We're talking about some of the best books of the year as defined by book critic, Laura Miller. She writes for Salon.com.

Now, let's go to another non-fiction book that you like called, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. The author is Barbara Demick, and she interviewed a great many defectors from the country who gave a pretty bleak portrait of what it's like to live there.

Tell me what you liked about this one.

Ms. MILLER: Well, of course, North Korea is very fascinating, because we can't see into the country, you know. Foreign journalists can't really go there unless they're being tightly supervised by the government, and only shown things that really kind of crazy government wants them to see.

The book opens with a nighttime map that shows North and South Korea, and South Korea is all sort of spangled with lights, and then North Korea is totally dark except for the capital of Pyongyang, because their entire infrastructure has collapsed. There's no electricity. As she puts it, they're not, you know, an undeveloped country, they're a country that's falling out of the developed world.

So this woman was reporting on Korea for the LA Times and she interviewed people who managed to sneak out of the northern city, not the capital city, so she got to see what life was like sort of outside of the capital. You know, like the weird fabric that all their clothes were made out of that wouldn't take any dye so everything was grey or brown. And it just has all these great details that really give us a sort of porthole into this really mysterious hermit kingdom, as it's often called.

MARTIN: Now, on a hopefully lighter note...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...there's a work of fiction that you very much like, called "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self." It's by Danielle Evans. It's a collection of short stories.

Ms. MILLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: What did you like about it?

Ms. MILLER: This is a really young African-American author. She's, I think, in her late 20s, and just the voice is so fresh. And most of the stories are from the point of view of young African-American women and their dealing with the friendships and love and family, the issues that you deal with when you're, you know, just coming of age or, you know, you're in school, and they're very much an update of what life is like now.

You know, we have our kind of set of, kind of traditionally fiction from the past, you know, maybe 25 years ago about African-American life. But it's really different now, so there this - one of my favorite stories is called "Virgins," and it's about this girl and her best friend and, you know, it begins saying, you know, it all started in the summer that Tupac was killed and you just, it has just this immediacy.

MARTIN: Now, I do want to ask you this, at the beginning of the year we had a conversation with - about an article that got a lot of attention in, you know, literary circles, pointing out the fact that so many of the books on the top 10 lists tend to be written by men. And I couldn't help but notice that all three of the books that you selected for us were all written by women.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I was wondering whether that was intentional?

Ms. MILLER: No. I don't, I, you know, to me if I am looking at my list and it is all too much of one kind of person, I do say, hmm, what can I do to sort of broaden my scope a little here. But most of the time I just dont find that it's that difficult to have a more diverse list. But I didnt even think of it, I have to tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, we'll link to your list - your entire list so people can see what they thought about it and I'm sure you'll get plenty of feedback, as people who write these lists always do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, finally, is there anything we should be on the lookout for in 2011 that you're particularly excited about?

Ms. MILLER: Well, the book that I just read that I was so outrageously entertained by is called "Stolen World" - which is another nonfiction work by woman, that is about the world of reptile smugglers who are the most crazy, no-account scoundrels you could ever imagine and get up to all kinds of shenanigans, and - with hiding snakes in their prosthetic legs and disguising themselves as zookeepers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. MILLER: It's just really, really fun.

MARTIN: That is the only recommendation that would make me actually go pick that up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So we'll have to see.

All right. Laura Miller is a book critic for Salon.com. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you so much for joining us and Happy Holidays to you.

Ms. MILLER: To you too. Thank you.

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