Book Club: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

It’s a rare book that connects the reader to both the subject and the author, but that is the case with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. As I added Rebecca Skloot’s name to my 2012 Book List, I realized that unlike most of the authors I read, I knew a great deal about her. It’s one of the reasons that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a compelling read.

The other reason, of course, is that the tragic yet very human story of Henrietta and her descendents cannot be put down and is rarely very far out of the reader’s consciousness. I’m a Gray’s Anatomy watcher — I’m behind right now, though, so don’t tell me — and I love medical dramas, but I’ve never even thought to ask what happens to all that blood and pieces of tissue that have been taken from me in the course of tests and hospitalizations. I just assumed that it was thrown away after a proscribed point in time. Apparently I was wrong.

When young science journalist Rebecca Skloot stumbled on a story about the source of the cells originally harvested from a cancer victim in 1951, she became part of the story herself. She spent ten years investigating the life and death of Henrietta Lacks, whose malignant cervical cells became the incredibly productive HeLa line used for tissue culturing in medical research. The world owes Henrietta Lacks a great deal, as her cells have been used for many medical discoveries, including the vaccine for polio.

Unfortunately, in 1951, indigent African-Americans being treated in clinics were not asked if they gave consent for much of anything, and Johns Hopkins doctors were no different from the rest of the segregated world in which Lacks and her family lived. Skloot has detailed a story of hope and wonder, as researchers at Johns Hopkins found that Lacks’s cells multiplied very quickly and remained viable in storage; they could be used and regenerated over and over again, something that scientists had not been able to depend on previously. The story also tells of a family devastated by the early death of a mother and the years of bereavement and poverty that followed. The obvious question becomes whether or not the Lacks family deserves to be compensated for the booming business that has emerged from Henrietta Lacks’s cells. Skloot leaves the reader to decide for herself.

Because Henrietta’s story and Rebecca Skloot’s story are intertwined, it’s amazing that Skloot was able to stay impartial and fair in presenting the Lacks family’s tragic tale. The book reads like fiction, but the science is also reported in an accessible and accurate way so that the reader understands both the human and the scientific sides of the issues involved.

I am really looking forward to talking about this book at Book Club next week, and I highly recommend it. I listened to it on audiobook and felt that the reader, Cassandra Campbell, was very successful in voicing both Skloot’s youthful enthusiasm and the Lacks family’s southern drawl. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of those thought-provoking, not-to-be-missed books — there’s a reason everyone is talking about it.

Writer’s Workshop: Book Reviews

Like all readers, I always have stacks of books laying on surfaces in my home and I’ve enjoyed writing about them on my blog. I keep a yearly tally on one of my blog pages (on the 2012 Book List tab) and link up my book reviews, so I hope you’ll take a look at what I’ve read and reviewed over the last few years.

Recently, I’ve been putting photos of the book covers on my sidebar when I start a new book. Let’s just say I have eclectic taste in what I read. There have been a few books that I’ve hidden from sight — I wasn’t prepared to tell the world everything I was reading. 🙂

So I’m going bare — here’s the full list of what I’m currently reading and may review, depending on how much I like (or hate) the book. It’s not embarrassing, thank goodness.

I always try to read the nominees for the Rebecca Caudill Award every year, which is an Illinois award conferred by student vote in grades four though eight. This year, the winner was Powerless. It’s a super-powers preteen-boys-book, but I’ve decided to read it anyway.  I doubt I’ll review it…

My eighth graders read Warriors Don’t Cry as the centerpiece of their study of Civil Rights. It’s the story of the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. I don’t think I actually read it again last year as my kids read it; it’s on my to-do list for the weekend. It’s a compelling story even as a reread.

I’m still working through An Old-Fashioned Girl on my Kindle — the Louisa Challenge seems to have stalled — and I’m looking forward to moving on to Little Men.

I just started The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on audiobook during my commute. It’s our May book club choice and I already know it’s going to be thought-provoking.

It appears that the only thing that’s slightly embarrassing is the Sophie Kinsella entry, but I’m not uncomfortable with my choice on that one. I enjoy her books and so do a lot of other people!

I’ve been lucky to connect with great readers through blogging, so let me introduce you to places you can read fabulous book reviews.

Jenners at Life With Books reads and reads and reads — and writes book reviews about intriguing books. I have three books on reserve at the library based on her recommendations!

A blogger with a different take on books is Jillian at A Room of One’s Own. She’s on a mission to catch up! Her reviews are thoughtful and full of insight about the “classics.”

I’ve enjoyed the creativity of Michele at The Great Read. If you’re looking for books for yourself or for your kids, she’s got you covered — at your library.

I can’t do this post without linking up to my niece Jessie at Vanderbilt Wife. She got me started writing again and I owe her my sanity. As both a writer and a reader, she’s got interesting reviews and commentary on books for adults and kids.

So we’re done for today. As my favorite flawed literary heroine says, “Tomorrow is another day.” Scarlett didn’t read, but her fame lives on through the genius of Margaret Mitchell. I can’t wait to read this

I’m linking up to Mama Kat again this week. Give my friends some comment love!

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