The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks died at age 31, her body racked with cancerous tumors growing out of control. She was a poor black woman in the public ward of Johns Hopkins hospital in 1951, a person who hid her intense pain from her family and friends as long as she could. Her story is one that could have been forgotten, if not for the fact that the cells taken from her cancerous tumors transformed science, research, and medicine.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a complex book. At times it is a biography of Henrietta Lacks and her family, from the early years of the century until today. At times it is a science volume, explaining the ways in which HeLa cells have contributed to cancer research, immunization research, and so forth. At times it is a memoir of one persistent researcher looking for answers. In all aspects, it’s a look at the history of race relations in America, especially in terms of medical care and privacy. I found it so fascinating, I did not want to stop reading, in my curiosity of what could possibly happen next.

The Immortal Life opens up plenty of issues for discussion: how would you feel about your cells being kept alive? What if it would further science? How would you feel about your deceased mother’s medical history then being shared with the medical community and the world without your permission? How would this story be different if Henrietta Lacks was not a poor black woman? How would her legacy be different if she were not who she was? What right did Rebecca Skloot have to open up her family’s past to a biography of this magnitude? What do you think of the ethical, moral, and cultural implications of Henrietta’s story?

Now that I have finished, I have yet more questions. I look forward to having a book club discussion about this some day. There so much in there to ponder, even including the presence of the narrator, Ms Rebecca Skloot. Wasn’t her actions just as morally and ethically questionable as the medical professionals? She pester the Lacks’ family in order to get them to tell her their story. It seems pretty clear that they did not want to talk to her, and only her persistence over years made it possible for her to write the story. Never the less, Henrietta Lacks is one of those well written nonfiction books that leaves me wanting more. Well done and highly recommended!

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal (Brief Thoughts)

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal (Icon Books, September 2012) purports to be a book for young adults, providing a look at Shakespeare as “as easy to handle as beans on toast”. That must be a British thing because beans on toast sounds pretty gross to me. (I don’t like beans.) At any rate, Shakespeare on Toast is delightfully refreshing in it’s overview of Shakespeare’s time and writing styles. Although I am pretty well read on Shakespeare, reading it taught me a lot and got me excited once again to read the Bard’s words. Success!Continue Reading

Classics for Young Kids

Just a few weeks before my second child, a daughter, was born, I stopped at a bookstore with my son and we bought her a book. It was Pride and Prejudice: A Babylit Counting Primer by Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver. In just 10 pages, we visited the story of Pride and Prejudice by learning about some of the important countable nouns in it: FIVE sister, TEN thousand pounds. The pictures are modern, and for this particular “primer” the nouns highlighted are lots of fun. Will a baby “get” the plot of the classic novel? No, but it sure is fun for a mama who loves the book!

New to the classics for babies scene is the Cozy Classics series by Jack and Holman Wang (Simply Read Books, 2012). In a similar way, these books share the plot with the youngest people, but these books do with just one word on each page. It’s amazing how they manage to share so much of the story in one word per page! The accompanying pictures are photographs of needle-point felt dolls and scenes. I am not able to sew in anyway so this is very impressive to me too. I read the Pride and Prejudice and the Moby Dick Cosy Classics as digital review copies from the publisher. Does a child need to know “peg leg”? No, but the format is a fun one for the parent who loves the classics!

And then there is a more complete picture book version. I discovered Moby Dick: Chasing the Great White Whale by Eric A. Kimmel and Andrew Glass (Feiwel and Friends, 2012) as a part of the Cybils 2012 fiction picture book judging process. It is a poetic sea shanty retelling of the story of Moby Dick. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I love reading the classics, so I was delighted to see a picture book about a favorite book of mine, although I must admit I was surprised to see Moby Dick, of all classic books, retold in picture book format. The book is so much fun for someone who enjoys Moby Dick. It begins with “Call me Ishmael” and it really does capture the feeling of the book in some respects: the desire to go whaling, the night in the inn with a man with a tattooed head, meeting Captain Ahab, the anticipation of the chase. The illustrations are gorgeous paintings, and one can see the brush strokes in the marvelously rich pages. I really enjoyed seeing the story come to life in the pictures. And yet, there is something odd as a whole about this as a picture book. One of the things I love about Moby Dick is the rich language; so much of my enjoyment of the book depends on the eloquent ponderings of the narrator.

As a whole, the story of Moby Dick is rather gruesome: sailors hunting down a large animal and killing it in a brutal and disgusting way. In the picture book, the language is reduced to a sea shanty rhyme, and the illustrations do the talking. It’s a nice introduction to Moby Dick’s plot but do young children really need the plot? I also took exception to the “moral” added to the end of the picture book. Herman Melville’s creation is certainly not something that ends with a trite moral: it’s far more complicated than the plot suggests, and his purposes in writing it (the “moral” if you will) is something to explore in doctoral length dissertations, not picture books. I don’t believe it was necessary to sum up the book in such a trite way: I believe it detracts from the whole.

In the end, then, I’m rather conflicted about this picture book: I love it since I love the original, but I wonder as to the necessity of it for children. Do we really want to talk about chasing and killing whales with our young ones? Why not wait until children can experience Melville himself?

Note: I received digital review copies of the Cozy Classics books for review consideration.

World War I: History in an Hour by Rupert Colley (Brief Thoughts)

World War I: History in an Hour by Rupert Colley (HarperPress, 2012) is just what it says it is: a brief look at the war for those interested in a taste of what it is about. HarperPress provides ebooks in this series for a very low cost (it appears to be a $1.99 or $2.99 price; see here). For people interested in history but that don’t have time for a full-length nonfiction book about it, this series may satisfy your curiosity as it did for me!

True, I felt like names, dates, and places were thrown at me, and yet, even after a brief hour of reading, I do feel a little bit more satisfied. There is a lot of history to be learned and only limited time in which to learn it. I must admit that World War I has never interested me to the same extent that World War II has. This book satisfied my curiosity for now. After I finished, I found a few novels that take place during the World War I era that I want to read from my Classics Club list and started them. I like having the context of the war in mind as I read.

I look forward to revisiting this series in the future! It was very convenient.

Note: I read a digital review copy from the publisher via netgalley.com.