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!

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (originally published serially in 1910) is a book full of memories for me. When I was a young girl, I recall staying home, sick, from school one day. My mom took our copy of The Secret Garden down off the shelf, and, just for me, she began reading it aloud.

The day when I brought my newborn daughter Strawberry home from the hospital, I pulled my copy down and began reading it aloud to her. She was about four days old. I read it during those first months when I was in a daze of sleep deprivation. I read it as I helped her calm down for the night. I read it more recently as our bedtime story. I finally finished it for her last week, when she was 5.5 months old.

The Secret Garden is a book about the magic of positive thinking. Burnett takes two cantankerous, negative, and spoiled children and places them together in a new setting: a garden that needs a bit of TLC in order to bloom back in to the beautiful and magnificent haven it once was. With a loveable animal charmer child, young Dickon, the children learn the power of positive thinking and experience the benefits of hard work in the open air. As sour orphan Mary Lennox and her invalid cousin Colin Craven resuscitate the seemingly dead garden and put in a bit of work, they too begin to blossom into pleasant people.Continue Reading

Cybils 2011 Nonfiction Picture Book Nominees

My work as a Fiction Picture Book panelist is over, but the great things about the Cybils is the lists of finalists to keep reading from for the rest of the year! This month, I decided to find the seven nonfiction picture book nominees to see what the fuss was about in the nonfiction sector.Continue Reading

Birth Day by Mark Sloan

Awwwww … newborn babies! I am a bit excited by the image of an innocent, soft, wrinkly newborn baby these days, for obvious reasons. Less than eight more weeks until a newborn daughter joins my family!

I found Birth Day by Mark Sloan (published 2009) one day when I was browsing the shelves looking for something about pregnancy or babies, and it was just perfect! Dr. Sloan is a pediatrician, regularly on rotation at the hospital to care for the newborns who may need a little assistance getting started in the world. But Birth Day is far more than a memoir of doctoring: it’s a reflection on his own experiences as a husband to a laboring woman, a personal account of his own experiences as a man becoming a father for the first and then second time, and a researched history of childbirth practices throughout history. The subtitle is “a pediatrician explores the science, the history and the wonder of childbirth” and that is an apt description. All those aspects are central to the book, and Dr. Sloan’s casual voice and personal presence makes it a pleasant read.

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