The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great story, lots of human interest, and well told. So much more than just science – you will care about these people.

Book description:
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, 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 she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

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Night

Night  Night by Elie Wiesel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m doing a booktalk for the Friends of the Library on Saturday. Thought I’d build the talk around Tolstoy’s War and Peace (which I still intend to finish reading some day!) and then expand on all the World War II books that have come out lately like Suite Francaise, The Guernsey Literary…Society, Sarah’s Key, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, The Book Thief, etc. This one is a staple of high school required reading lists, and it is short but eloquent. I listened to the book on CD which included the new preface and Wiesel’s acceptance speech on winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I was especially struck by this comment in the preface: “I am not so naive as to believe that this slim volume will change the course of history or shake the conscience of the world. Books no longer have the power they once did.” Is that true? – Surely books still have the power to change and/or to inspire individuals. That book for me growing up was Vinzi by Johanna Spyri about a boy overcoming his father’s disapproval and prejudice to follow his dream of becoming a musician, and of the power of music to heal lives. But I digress…
Do you agree? Have books lost their power in today’s world?

Description: Night is Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. This new translation by Marion Wiesel, Elie’s wife and frequent translator, presents this seminal memoir in the language and spirit truest to the author’s original intent. And in a substantive new preface, Elie reflects on the enduring importance of Night and his lifelong, passionate dedication to ensuring that the world never forgets man’s capacity for inhumanity to man.

Night offers much more than a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald; it also eloquently addresses many of the philosophical as well as personal questions implicit in any serious consideration of what the Holocaust was, what it meant, and what its legacy is and will be.

Maybe This Time

Maybe This TimeMaybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a delightful book. The characters are funny and engaging. 7-year-old Alice will steal your heart. The ghosts are believable, and the author builds in a nice tension between Dennis the doubting parapsychologist, and Isolde, the no-nonsense down-to-earth medium. Andie is a terrific, strong heroine. The romance, though, was definitely a side-story, and North was never really developed very well as the romantic hero, so that was the least compelling part of the book. Not a lot of substance here, which is why I didn’t give it 5 stars. But if you’re looking for a light, funny read with some very original characters, give this a try. Supposedly, it is a retelling of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I might just have to read it and see.

Description:
Andie Miller is ready to move on with her life. She wants to marry her fiancé and leave behind everything in her past, especially her ex-husband, North Archer. But when Andie tries to gain closure with him, he asks one final favor of her. A distant cousin has died and left North the guardian of two orphans who have driven away three nannies already—and things are getting worse. He needs someone to take care of the situation, and he knows Andie can handle anything.

When Andie meets the two children, she soon realizes it’s much worse than she feared. Carter and Alice aren’t your average delinquents, and the creepy old house where they live is being run by the worst housekeeper since Mrs. Danvers. Complicating matters is Andie’s fiancé’s suspicion that this is all a plan by North to get Andie back. He may be right because Andie’s dreams have been haunted by North since she arrived at the old house. And that’s not the only haunting.

Then her ex-brother-in-law arrives with a duplicitous journalist and a self-doubting parapsychologist, closely followed by an annoyed medium, Andie’s tarot card–reading mother, her avenging ex-mother-in-law, and her jealous fiancé. Just when Andie’s sure things couldn’t get more complicated, North arrives to make her wonder if maybe this time things could just turn out differently.

Filled with her trademark wit, unforgettable characters, and laugh-out-loud scenarios, Maybe This Time shows why Jennifer Crusie is one of the most beloved storytellers of our time.