Thursday, March 26, 2015

New reads:

My newest read is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It's my pick for #17 on the "26 books to read in 2015" list: a book that will make you smarter. Have you read it? I had put it on my "to read" list years ago but then never got around to reading it until one of the ladies in my book club picked it for our next discussion. I've been reading it for the past few days and I love it. It is so interesting.

Here's what it's about:

"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 canceer, 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 millions.

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 20 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 multi-million 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 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."

I don't typically read nonfiction but I have enjoyed every moment of this book. The author has done a good job bringing the very real people in this story to life on the page. I feel like I have met them. I feel their emotions (grief, anger, confusion). I never knew things like this actually happen and now that I do, I feel like I should be asking questions. 

It's very enlightening. Pick it up. Educate yourself. It'll be good for you.

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