“Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren

Hope Jahren announces at the start of her award-winning memoir “Lab Girl” (2016) that “people are like plants; they grow towards the light.” As she rolls out the story of her rural Minnesota childhood, we understand how she chose science as her path, as the safe place to be. She had a “deep orphan-pain” from her repressed mother and the “silent togetherness” of her Swedish-American family. The joy in her childhood came every day after school, when she went to the college where her father taught, and, for hours, the two of them prepared the experiments, demonstrations and equipment for the following days classes. In the silence of the building, “he was the king and she was the prince.”

Jahren was praised as a schoolgirl for her performance in the sciences, yet during college and graduate work, she was shocked by the demeaning treatment she received as a female from the male biologists, often overhearing crude comments about her gender through the office walls. She now views that consciousness as an opportunity—since no one really knew what a female scientist is, she made it up as she went along.

Toward the end of her PhD work as an assistant in undergrad courses, she identified a disheveled loner named Bill as being exceptionally bright and determined. Something in the energy and curiosity of this oddball clicked with Hope, and Bill became her right-hand man from then on. Throughout the early years, she found small lab spaces in which to work, Bill literally camped out in corners at night, and the two fueled each other with energy and creativity in their research. Their verbal sparring frequently lifts the story to hilarious heights.

Jahren scatters specific information about the trees and plants, seeds and roots she studies amongst the events of her life. These breaks, though sometimes hard for the layman to follow, contain fascinating information about plant life around us. They bring a special richness to the book, as well, by their hint at how much all we living things have in common.

Jahren succeeded in becoming a true scientist—one who develops her own experiments rather than conducts those of others—and thereby, becomes one who “generates wholly new knowledge.”  Yet this type of science, which is sometimes called “curiosity-driven research.” only exists when it’s funded by NSF, so a life of science means a life of constant worry about money. Readers know that Jahren hopes we voters are listening carefully.

After only a chapter or two, I started identifying girls or young woman I knew who might be inspired by this engaging memoir. With Jahren’s warning that trees are being wiped from the earth and we are in big trouble, I am hoping that there are a lot more budding scientists out there, ready to dig in.

"M Train" by Patti Smith

Punk rock star and multi-talented artist Patti Smith’s National Book Award winner “Just Kids” covered the early days of her New York City life, highlighting her deep friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe before his death from AIDS. “M Train” (2015), her newest memoir, is a compilation of later writings from a variety of locales. In it, we see a different Smith. She is mellowing with age, and the essence of the brilliant, inquisitive and kind-hearted soul she is, permeates her tales.

She has lived an amazingly peripatetic life. As a young wife, she promised her husband she would give him a child if he took her to a crumbling penal colony in French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America, to gather a handful of stones, which she placed, years later, on the Spanish grave site of writer Jean Genet who’d been incarcerated in that prison. In another chapter she’s in 2005 Bremen where she’s been invited to the convention of the Continental Drift Club comprised of geologists and mathematicians. Later she’s in Tangier with a group of poets and musicians honoring the Beat Generation writers who were drawn to that city. At all times, her old Polaroid camera and extra film packs are with her, and her artful photos are sprinkled throughout the book.

Far-flung adventure is not all there is. The title hints at the fact that Lower Manhattan serves as Smith’s beloved home base, and those sections have an appealing everyday-ness in their settings. A messy apartment she shares with her cats whom she feeds with “hand-picked personality-appropriate saucers.” Her favorite corner table in the neighborhood Café ‘Ino with endless cups of black coffee, “pretending to write, or writing in earnest, with more or less the same questionable results.” A dilapidated bungalow by the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach she falls in love with and buys just before Hurricane Sandy devastates the area. The watering holes in The Village that bring back her years worshiping the Beat Poets, “couriers of wisdom,” she says, “that once ushered my generation into a cultural revolution.”

Her life was not without tragedy. She was devastated by the sudden death of her 45-year-old husband, the Detroit musician Fred (Sonic) Smith, and a month later her brother Todd succumbed to cancer. To come out of the darkness, she did the only thing she knew to do—write it out, fueled by plenty of joe. And may I suggest, if you’d like to channel Patti Smith as you read “M Train,” find a cozy corner table in a coffee shop and drink up.

"Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande

To read Atul Gawande’s powerful bestseller “Being Mortal” (2014) is to engage in an unflinchingly honest discussion with a brilliant, but humble, doctor about end-of-life issues. Not everyone may be ready for that. It’s easy to put off thinking about the complicated choices we may face, given the medical advances that now exist to prolong life. But as Gawande reminds us, we will someday need to confront them for family members and ultimately ourselves. A death certificate requires just one cause of death, as if people are swiftly felled by one trauma. The truth, he says, is that it’s actually “the accumulated crumbling of one’s bodily systems.” A noted physician, responding to Gawande’s question about how to characterize death’s arrival, told him, “We basically all fall apart.”

That down-to-earth description leads to an examination of how prepared our society is, and we as individuals are, to face the reality of an often slow decline. Nursing homes, you might guess, are the answer. Though nursing homes satisfy societal needs, they are not made for what people need, and therein lies the heart of this book. Gawande asserts that the goal that should matter is, how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves. The lack of privacy, the inability to make personal decisions and the loss of familiar people and surroundings that generally go with nursing homes are the opposite of what people really want.

We get a look at what innovators in the elderly care business are doing to address that. Keren Brown Wilson first came up with the concept of an independent living center with assistance. In her Park Place in Portland, residents lived in small apartments, where they brought or purchased their own furniture, had locks on their doors, kept pets and had a nurse available on site at all times.  He reports that early assisted living facilities were meant to serve people until the end of their lives, but they have become more of just a step between independence and nursing homes.

Gawande closes by recounting personal experiences with his father at the end of his life. The young doctor was forced to draw upon what he has learned, not from medical school or fellow physicians, but from hospice caregivers and palliative-care workers who strived to make his father as emotionally comfortable and pain-free as possible. For a physician who once dismissed the concept of hospice care, he has become an ardent supporter.

Gawande says his goal for writing ‘Being Mortal” was to raise the issues and start a conversation. He certainly left me thinking and talking to others at length about these important topics. It’s a must read for those ready to address the uncomfortable but unavoidable idea of end-of-life care.