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Monday, December 27, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot~★★★★

Author: Rebecca Skloot
Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Release Date: February 2nd, 2010
Publisher: Crown, First Edition edition 
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "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. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn't her children afford health insurance?
Intimate in feelings, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discoveries, as well as its human consequences.

Taryn's Review: Science and I are not friends. We never have been, and I'm pretty sure we never will be. However, this book still caught my eye. I was a little hesitant that my lack of understanding regarding anything to do with science might hinder my enjoyment, but I figured I'd give it a shot anyhow.

Skloot made this book very understandable from the get-go, and the story itself was really fascinating. Henrietta Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins when she found a lump on her cervix, which turned out to be cancer. A doctor scraped the cells of her cervix and tumor and sent them to George Gey. Gey also worked for Johns Hopkins and was trying to grow cells. Skloot broke things down when getting into the cell information so that anyone can understand what was done with Henrietta's cells. Skloot also followed the story of Henrietta's family after her death and up to the present time. Another touching yet emotional story within this one was the story of Elsie Lacks, the daughter of Henrietta who was taken to a mental hospital as a child and apparently was never visited by anyone after the death of her mother.

I really wrestled with this one on what to rate it. I found this book engaging and moving, but there were some issues that held me back. The first was that Henrietta, while uninformed that her cells were taken, was not unique in having them taken from what I understood from the book. Everyone had cells taken at Johns Hopkins and those cells were sent to George Gey's lab. Secondly, it didn't appear that George Gey had any maliciously masterminded plan to profit off the cells he grew, and he was trying to contribute to science alone in his work. In fact, Gey never benefited monetarily and gave away all the original cells he collected. Thirdly, there was a lot of time dedicated to the back-and-forth of Deborah and Skloot and Deborah's "torment" with the subject. I would have been okay with a little less Deborah information in the book. I also don't know how I feel on the subject on whether the Lackses are owed money for the use of HeLa cells and if so, how much, and it's not something I would even want to debate here.

What was horrifying was the fact that Henrietta's family was never made aware of the contribution her cells made and the impact they had on the scientific community. I don't know what it would have changed necessarily had they been informed, but perhaps knowing brought some closure to the children of Henrietta since they never got to know their mother. The scientist who gave Deborah a picture of Henrietta's cells was very touching and it was heart-wrenching to read Deborah's reaction. Deborah was still a woman longing for the mother she never had, and this was the closest she would ever get to her mother in her own lifetime. It was also shocking to read that Deborah had never seen a picture of her mother until she was given a textbook on genetics by a doctor.

I would definitely encourage anyone to read this book. Rebecca Skloot's time and dedication to her subject was apparent throughout the book, and her desire to tell the world about the person behind the cells was indeed a noble thing to do. Something I strive for in my work in history is to never forget that every source I deal with involved a person who was living and breathing with a heart and soul at one time. Skloot gave the world a reminder that HeLa was much more than cells, but cells that at one time sustained the life a young woman named Henrietta Lacks. A powerful, moving story that you should read!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs~★★★★

Author: A.J. Jacobs
Title: My Life as an Experiment: One Man's Humble Quest to Improve Himself
Release Date: July 13th, 2010
Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint Edition
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Cover: "Bestselling author and human guinea pig A.J. Jacobs puts his life to the test and reports on the surprising and entertaining results. He goes undercover as a woman, lives by George Washington's moral code, and impersonates a movie star. He practices 'radical honesty,' brushes his teeth with the world's most rational toothpaste, and outsources every part of his life to India---including reading bedtime stories to his kids. 
And in a new adventure, Jacobs undergoes scientific testing to determine how he can put his wife through these and other life-altering experiments---one of which involves public nudity.
Filled with humor and wisdom, My Life as an Experiment will immerse you in eye-opening situations and change the way you think about the big issues of our time---from love and work to national politics and breakfast cereal.  


Taryn's Review: I've never said this before, but I really feel like the book cover blurb didn't grasp the book very well. It even embellishes the truth somewhat; what we think of as going "undercover" is not what Jacobs did in the book. I don't know that I would label a picture that hid offending body parts an example of  "public nudity." The movie star Jacobs impersonated was not really a movie "star," but an actor that not too many people would be familiar with. Whoever wrote the book jacket blurb should be embarrassed.

I don't fault Jacobs for that though. His book made me laugh out loud quite a few times. I really laughed at the chapter where he outsourced his life to India. The things he had those poor women do! I also enjoyed the chapter where he was radically honest. Radical honesty is probably not the best policy!

There were many things in the book that did make me think. I loved how he tried to be rational and that, in turn, made him review actions from his past. Jacobs felt that some rationalities he had believed in were only believed because someone who he deemed an authority at some point in his life told him so. I used to be afraid to sleep with a necklace on after my mother told me that I could choke myself to death in my sleep. I had a revelation in high school when I fell asleep with a necklace on, yet found myself awake in the morning, not having choked to death by the grasp of a delicate gold chain. I understood exactly what he was saying and it made me laugh at my own "rational" absurdities as well.

This was a very quick read. Jacobs apparently recycled some older articles he wrote for various magazines over the years for some sections. I personally wasn't bothered by it since I hadn't read his stuff before. I can see how the re-use of material could be annoying if you picked up the book expecting fresh material. It was a fun read and I'd gladly read Jacobs other two books as well. Thought-provoking and funny are always a good mix.

Monday, December 20, 2010

He Knew I Would Tell by Cheryl Mochau~★★★★

Author: Cheryl Mochau
Title: He Knew I Would Tell: Short Stories of God Moments in the Lives of Ordinary People
Release Date: November 5th, 2010
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Cover: "Jesus said, 'Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?' John 11:40. Ask anyone who believes in God if they have ever witnessed His presence and they'll probably have a story to share. He Knew I Would Tell is a collection of short stories of 'God moments' as they have occurred in ordinary people's lives. 
God moments happen all the time. Most people don't notice, or tend to ignore them or chalk them up to coincidences. But when His presence comes on strong, He is impossible to ignore! He Knew I Would Tell. Maybe, just maybe, these things happened to these particular people because He knew they would tell! Jesus said, 'Return home and tell how much God has done for you.' Luke 8:39."

Taryn's Review: My mom doesn't really read books and she never really has. She would make an earnest attempt now and then when a popular book would catch on, but most of the time the book would end up in my little hands and I would devour it. She always wanted to read, but just struggled with attention issues and perhaps was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer size of most books.

Imagine my surprise when she brought me this book and she said she read it! I love when people pick up a book and connect with it, and for my mom, this one did it for her.

It's a smaller book and the font was liberally sized, but the message was sweet and moving. It's a compilation of various stories told by people or relayed the author by others. Sometimes the book felt a little disjointed with the many breaks, but I finished the book carrying a positive message from those who had had an interaction with God or the Holy Spirit. The book was also dotted with scriptures throughout, so for anyone who enjoys biblical passages, it was a nice touch to connect them to the stories.

I think this book is awesome for anyone who loves a moving story combined with Christianity. It's easy to stop and restart this book or to re-read a short story when you need a pick-me-up. My favorite story in the book was one called, "Welcome Home." This was a nice, quick read for me and I'm glad to have read it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett~★★★★

Author: Ann Patchett
Title: The Patron Saint of Liars
Release Date: March 18th, 2003
Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1st Perennial Ed.
Genre: Fiction

Book Cover: "St. Elizabeth's is a home for unwed mothers in the 1960s. Life there is not unpleasant, and for most, it is temporary. Not so for Rose, a beautiful mysterious woman who comes to the home pregnant but not unwed. She plans to give up her baby because she knows she cannot be the mother it needs. But St. Elizabeth's is near a healing spring, and when Rose's time draws near, she cannot go through with her plans, not all of them. And she cannot remain forever untouched by what she left behind...and who she has become in the leaving." 

Taryn's Review: My first semester of school is almost over, and I am going to go the library, take a deep breath of the musty book smell there and then probably checkout half of the book collection for my own reading pleasure over break! I can't wait to read books of my own choosing again (even if it's temporary!).

This book, The Patron Saint of Liars, is a mystery to me as to why I like it so much. Rose was not understandable nor relatable to me. She made odd choices and I don't understand why she made the choices she did. But I was drawn to Rose and I was fascinated by the way Patchett had us getting to know her, but yet kept Rose at a distance (much like the relationship Rose has with most of the characters in the book). I also adored some of the characters Rose encountered at St. Elizabeth's.

I really enjoyed the setting of St. Elizabeth's and the characters that Patchett created there. The location of the book is one I am very familiar with, so it was fun to try and visualize the place (even if St. Elizabeth's isn't real!).

Rose probably isn't a character who you'll love or even respect, but the people around her and the impact of the choices she made set the scene for really good read, in my opinion. I don't think I'd classify it as chick-lit or a happy book, but it does make you think about why we do the things we do and how our choices affect other people's lives immediately and in the future.