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!
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (published 1970, reissued in ebook form by OpenRoad Media) is an incredibly painful book to read. It is a straight-forward historical account of the last three decades of Native American Indians in the American West, an account of the great leaders and cultures that are no more.
Although I felt I had an understanding of the conflicts that happened in the American West during the 1800s, I feel now that I had no idea of the extent of the genocide. Before, I thought the Native American Indians tragically died out, due to disease and relocation. Now I see better that the local American government routinely slaughtered whole communities.
Brown’s book is written with the Native American perspective at the forefront, so of course there is bias. However, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a well researched record of the American historical experience, and it is a vital text for Americans interested in learning the not-so-pretty truth about American history. (more…)
I really enjoyed reading the first Hereville graphic novel, so when I saw the next one on netgalley, I was eager to revisit Mirka’s somewhat bizarre world. Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite by Barry Deutsch (published November 2012) is another look at the spunky young Jewish girl who has fantastic adventures in her small community.
In the first volume, Mirka fights a troll in order to win a sword, but her battle ends up being different from what she expected! In this second volume, Mirka learns that a meteorite is coming to the earth. The witch helps her by transforming the meteorite, but it was not quite what she was expecting! Once again, Mirka must come to terms with herself in the humorous challenge she faces in this volume.
Hereville is such a blend of creativity that I really enjoy reading it, and I imagine the intended audience (young middle grade readers) loves it far more than I do! It has a strong strand of Jewish culture, but it also is a fantasy, an adventure, and a tale of a girl dealing with bullies, family, and basic pre-teen difficulties. I am not Jewish and I loved the glimpse at an Orthodox Jewish family and community. In general, I really like the world Barry Deutsch has created, and I’m glad he’s continued Mirka’s saga in this second volume of her adventures.
Note: I read a digital review copy from the publisher via Netgalley for review consideration.
White House Kids: The Perks, Pleasures, and Pratfalls of the Presidents’ Children by Joe Rhatigan (Imagine Publishing, 2012) provides a fun and colorful picture of the history of children in the White House. From George Washington’s step-daughter to the Obama girls, White House Kids gives an interesting portrait of how life changed for the children of the nation’s most well known public official. It’s not easy being a kid, and being thrust in the limelight while still a child obviously brings an entirely new set of difficulties.
I’m not usually interested in pop culture celebrity biographies, but White House Kids provided an interesting contrast to other celebrity biographies out there. Because of the historical nature of the White House and the presidents, reading this book gave historical insight into the presidents. A number of things surprised me about White House Kids, mostly because of the breadth it covered through history and the interest it provides for youth today who may be interested in history, the presidents, as well as current “celebrity kids” like Malia and Sasha Obama. (more…)
Because I am studying American history with my young son this year, I find myself drawn to books about the subjects I’m teaching him. Obviously, my studies are simply for my own enrichment and enjoyment; much of what I’m learning will not be taught to my five-year-old child.
This was our second week of official school, and we focused on the Native Americans. My son enjoyed a few picture books, which I may discuss at another point. My book of the week on Native Americans (I did also read 1491 a few weeks ago) was one from the Very Short Introduction series from Oxford University Press: North American Indians by Theda Perue and Michael D. Green (August 2010). As is the case with all books in this series, the authors introduced the subject, touching on the history, the various perspectives, and their own take on matters, in less than 150 pages.
From my perspective, North American Indians was a wonderful introduction to American Indian issues. A chapter discussed the known and unknown facts of the Indians in North America before Columbus, and subsequent chapters discussed the subsequent downfall of the Natives as Europeans and then Americans dominated the land. It was fascinating to me to see how simple cultural differences led to the Europeans’ domination: in situations where Natives were simply treating people with respect, Europeans interpreted their acts as weakness. The last chapter talked about current cultural challenges faced by American Indians, as well as the recent cultural renaissance in literature and art.
Obviously, in 130 pages, no book can do more than only introduce such a complex issue. There is little discussion of various tribes and heritages, and even major events in history are glossed over. No more can be expected. I am also not familiar with either author, and I don’t know their relationship to the Native American communities today. I don’t know if there is bias in this book. From my perspective, it seemed well rounded and fair. However, despite the brevity of the book, I found it to be a helpful one to help me better understand the Native American position in the world today.
I wish that the Europeans and then the Americans had not been so insensitive to those already living here and that the great umber of complex cultures could have survived to teach us today. It would be incredible if we could better understand. As it is, we must recognize the tragedies of history.