The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 3, 2013

Danya Walker: Summer reading lists features an underground theme

By Danya Walker
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Adult Summer Reading has officially started at the Joplin Public Library, and the theme is "Groundbreaking Reads." As part of the theme, we have books and movies on display that were cutting edge for their time or deal with tunnels, earthquakes and underground movements.

Some of them I've read or seen, and others I'm planning to enjoy this summer. What follows are my top picks for some groundbreaking reading.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot is on a lot of must-read lists. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer, yet her cells -- taken without her knowledge -- became one of the most important tools in medicine.

The first "immortal" human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though Lacks has been dead for more than 60 years. HeLa cells were vital in developing the polio vaccine, uncovered secrets of cancer and viruses, helped lead to in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave.

Her family did not learn of her "immortality" until more than 20 years after her death, when scientists began using her husband and children in research without their informed consent.

The story of the Lacks family is inextricably connected to the sometimes shady history of experimentation on African-Americans, the birth of bioethics and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

"The River Wife" by Jonis Agee is a sweeping epic of a story that ranges from the New Madrid earthquake of 1811, to the Civil War and the bootlegging days of the 1930s.

After the 1811 New Madrid earthquake injures Annie Lark, she begins life as the river wife of Jacques Ducharme, a French fur trapper. Her journals are read by the wife of a descendent who feels that their lives eerily mimic each other.

"Ragtime" by E.L. Doctorow features three remarkable families whose lives become entwined with Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Theodore Dreiser, Sigmund Freud and Emiliano Zapata at the turn of the century.

"The Doctor Wore Petticoats: Women Physicians of the Old West" by Chris Enss covers some of the earliest female medical practitioners in the Old West.

"The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels beneath New York City" by Jennifer Toth describes the so-called "mole people" living alone and in communities in the frescoed waiting rooms of long-forgotten subway tunnels below subway platforms.

"Metropolis" is the story of a 21st-century city run by a "super trustee" and his collaborators who live in a paradise-like garden. Workers are enslaved by machines and condemned to live underground.

In the midst of this misery, a young woman, Maria, rises up and attempts to inspire the workers to throw off their oppressors. This silent film has become the reference point for nearly every science fiction film ever made.

"Mrs. Henderson Presents" is set in London during World War II and is the story of Laura Henderson, who buys an old theater and opens it up as a performance hall which went down in history for, among other things, its all-nude reviews.

The theater boasted that it never closed during the Blitz. The showgirls, cast members and crew moved into the safety of the theater's two underground floors during some of the worst air attacks of the Blitz.

In the screwball comedy "Office Space," white-collar peon Peter Gibbons decides that work sucks and actively tries to get fired. Instead, his straight-shooting attitude gets him promoted to a position where he can play out his grand embezzling scheme. While not a box office success, the film sold well on DVD and VHS and has become recognized as a cult classic.

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is a mixture of fantastical rock opera and horror movie spoof. A newly married couple have car trouble one dark and rainy night and knock on the door of a looming gothic mansion. They are stunned to learn that they have stumbled into an ongoing convention of kinky characters, hosted by Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a mad scientist from the planet Transsexual. "Rocky Horror" shows that the acceptance of a film can come after its release and earn a place in movie history by being comically ahead of its time.

All in all, Adult Summer Reading (and viewing) promises to be a mixture of the light and humorous, dark and creepy and entertainingly educational.