"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My goodness, what an great story. A fascinating combination of science and personal interest. Far better, and quite a bit different, than what I was expecting. And now I really must get back to writing in complete sentences.

Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31, just a few months after being diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. A wife, and mother of 5 children, one just a few months old, her family didn't find out until 20 years later that her cells were being used for research at laboratories all over the world. Those cells, labeled HeLa from the first two letters of both her names, had been reproduced millions of times and were responsible for some of the most important medical developments of the century.

Rebecca Skloot spent ten years doing thousands of hours of research and interviews with Henrietta's family and doctors in an attempt to make her story public. She manages to explain the science in a way that is fairly easy for a non-scientist to understand and still tell the deeply personal story of Henrietta's family. Most of her family contact was with Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who put her off for a long time because she and her brothers felt they couldn't trust anybody to tell them the truth.

This book raises a lot of ethical questions about the use of human cells without the patient's permission. Who owns those cells - the patient, the family, the researchers who use them to advance medical science, or the corporations who multiply them millions of times over for sale at a profit? It also takes a realistic look at the suffocating effects of poverty and the lingering consequences of slavery and discrimination on black families even now. It's not always an easy story to read, but it is worth it.

I had read a few unflattering reviews that suggested the story was being told for the sole purpose of making the family some money, but I can't see how that is accurate at all. The family doesn't seem to have received anything, a situation I still have reservations about. So much benefit has come from Henrietta's cells, yet her family couldn't afford medical insurance to pay for needed procedures. Is that right? I don't know, but I'm glad I read the story. I met some great characters who have given me a lot to think about.    

Hope you'll check this one out!

"Atonement"

Atonement by Ian McEwan

"No one now writing fiction in the English language surpasses Ian McEwan."  - The Washington Post Book World

"McEwan could be the most psychologically astute writer working today..." - Esquire

With accolades like this, one might wonder why I waited so long to read McEwen. I've had the book for years but I don't remember what made me buy it in the first place. Some review on some blog struck a chord I guess. Now that I've read it I'm still ambivalent and I feel almost apologetic about not loving it.

Many of the glowing descriptions I've read are, I think, accurate. It is lush, detailed, intense, gripping and beautiful, all words used by qualified reviewers. I just didn't find it consistently wonderful from beginning to end. There were times when it didn't hold my interest and I found myself reading and re-reading the same passage to try to get myself back into the story.

It is a good story. Thirteen year old Briony is an imaginative child who misunderstands what's happening when she sees her older sister Cecilia in an intimate embrace with a man. What she thinks she saw leads her to an action, a crime, that will change the lives of her entire family, and the damage will be irreversible. The time span of the story is 1935 to 1997, which takes Briony from age 13 through her 75th birthday. I finally began to like her when she turned 75.

I'm just realizing as I'm writing this that I never came to care for any of the characters and that would explain why I didn't love the book. I do think McEwan is an excellent writer, and he is definitely "psychologically astute" to the point of brilliance, but I can't get seriously involved in a novel unless the characters mean something to me, and these ones never got to that place. Who knows why? Sometimes things click and sometimes they don't. This time, for me, it didn't. 


"Quiet"

"Quiet" by Susan Cain

I've read this book twice and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. The second reading was because our book club chose it for our September selection; I don't think I'd have chosen to re-read it on my own.

I found it to be a very well researched book, so well in fact that if you don't enjoy studies and statistics and such you may find it a bit tedious. I enjoyed that part of it, and I thought it both easy to read and interesting.

Most of my book club members call themselves introverts but there are at least two who would say they are extroverts. In an interesting twist it was one of the extroverts who was scheduled to lead the discussion for this book. It couldn't have been easy but she did a good job, and though this book tends to put everybody a little on the defensive, we all ended the evening friends. I actually enjoyed the discussion more than the book because I find it fascinating to hear other people's reactions to it. So much is learned about each other in the conversation.

Most of the introverts felt the book was supportive and that it encouraged them to value the qualities that are sometimes considered flaws by a basically extroverted society: need for solitude, time to think, an affinity for facts and numbers and a preference for solo work over teamwork. The extroverts felt the book was somewhat biased against them and I agree there were times when they were all lumped together as being loud, pushy and arrogant. We wondered if the author was writing from some negative experience she'd had because she did seem to stereotype extroverts more than necessary. As one of our members pointed out we all use stereotypes everyday, but there is a limit. No person is completely predictable and people shouldn't be filed into labeled slots.

It turns out that I am one of the most introverted of the introverts in our group and yet I didn't seem to completely fit the profile in the book. We are supposed to be indecisive, but I don't have a problem making decisions when they need to be made. I like to consider all the options and hear everyone's input first, but when a decision needs to be made, I make it. This just serves to reinforce our conclusion that we are all far too complex to be boxed in by one descriptive word. Generalizations may be useful at times, but every person is unique and it's a mistake, sometimes a dangerous one, to make too many assumptions.

I'm glad I read the book, but I do have one hesitation about recommending it. I've read it twice and both times ended with the feeling that I should try a little harder to be an extrovert. It did encourage introverts to make the most of their strengths but I still felt that the goal was always to be just a little more extroverted. Yes, we all need to stretch ourselves, but I question why there are so many books, classes, and seminars pushing us to be more extroverted but so few pushing extroverts to be more introverted. The idea that introverts are just somehow "wrong" is wearing a little thin for me.  I've tried over the years to become what our extroverted society wants everybody to be, but I'm not going to make it. I can fake it if I have to, for a short time, but I've come to the realization that I actually like being an introvert. I think I'll spend my remaining years just enjoying it.

"Silas Marner"

Silas Marner by George Eliot

George Eliot has been a revelation to me. I had spent years avoiding her, mostly because I'd been warned that "Middlemarch" was a long, tedious book that would test my patience. Then I bit the bullet, read it and loved it. I didn't find it tedious, my patience didn't suffer at all, and I was happy to have a new (to me) author whose backlist I could add to my tbr.

Silas Marner is the story of a man who left his hometown when he was accused and found guilty of a theft he didn't commit. With his faith in God and man destroyed, he moved to a new place to practice his trade as a weaver of cloth. There he kept to himself, saving every coin he earned until he had hoarded two bags full, making them the center and purpose of his life. But one day the unthinkable happened and his money was stolen. In his despair he became even more isolated and withdrawn, until one night a golden-haired child, drawn by the light of his fire, wandered into his cottage.

When the child's mother was found dead in the snow, Silas decided to raise the child himself.  She restored his humanity and brought him into relationship with his neighbours. She lived a contented life with him until she was about seventeen years of age, never hearing from the man who was her biological father. Then, one day, the mystery of what happened to Silas's money was solved, Eppie's real father stepped forward to claim her as his daughter and....the rest of the story awaits you in this wonderful book. 

I read somewhere a review of Silas Marner in which the writer referred to it as a fable, a good description I think. Fables offer up lessons, of which there are several here. It teaches the folly of putting all our hope in gold, the withering of the soul when we separate ourselves from human contact, and the hope and joy a child brings into our lives. The epigraph is from a Wordsworth poem:

"A child, more than all other gifts 
That earth can offer to declining man, 
Brings hope with it, forward-looking thoughts." 

This was a beautiful story, one that deepened the appreciation I found for Eliot after reading Middlemarch. I wish I hadn't avoided her for so long, but because I did all her books are still waiting to be read and that, as Martha would say, is a good thing.

Top Ten Books I Really Want To Read But Don't Own Yet


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Broke and Bookish. It's fun trying to come up with the various lists of ten that they ask for, though I only seem to get around to doing it once in a while. You know how it is - life keeps happening and getting in the way. But, I'm doing it this week, so here's my list of  10 books I want to read but don't yet own:

1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro - I saw and loved the movie before I knew it was based on a book. I hear great things about his writing and I've been wanting to read it for ages.

2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens - I'm working my way through Dickens.

3. Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World by Lisa Bloom - because as I age, I notice people starting to speak to me as if the words old and stupid are synonymous and it's making me crazy!

4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - I cannot believe I haven't read this yet.

5. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin - I've read such great reviews, and it's about a bookshop owner.

6. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winnifred Watson - it's been recommended on a lot of blogs, and I love the title.

7. Pictures At An Exhibition by Camilla MacPherson - someone told me that it reminded them of "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" and I loved every page of that book.

8. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams - because it's been on every list of "must read" books that I've seen and I feel guilty about not reading it. I want to get it done.

9. Diligent River Daughter by Bruce Graham - this is the sequel to one of my favourite novels "Ivor Johnson's Neighbours".

10. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington - it's a Pulitzer winner, it was written in 1919 and the word 'saga' is used in every review. It sounds just about perfect.

If you want to take part in Top Ten Tuesday, get on over to Broke and Bookish and sign up. Have a good week!

"That Summer in Paris"

That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan

In 1929 Morley Callaghan and his wife Loretto lived for a few months in Paris, a city to which many of the world's young literary notables were drawn for both the lifestyle and the daily opportunity of bumping into other writers with whom to hold long wine-fueled conversations. Also there at that time were Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Ezra Pound.

Callaghan had met Hemingway when they both worked for the Toronto Star and Hemingway had encouraged him in his writing. After reading one of his stories Hemingway said to him, "You're a real writer. You write big-time stuff. All you have to do is keep on writing." Callaghan became good friends with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald while he was staying in Paris. He boxed with Hemingway and they all did a lot of drinking together, but there was always a tension between Hemingway and Fitzgerald that eventually affected his relationships with them as well.

There is a humility in the telling of this story that I found very appealing. Let's face it, it would be easy to do some name-dropping and bragging about who he had met and what nice things they might have said about his work but Callaghan doesn't fall into that trap.  He writes a rather straightforward memoir revealing them all, including himself, to be ordinary people with idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and flaws like the rest of us. Ordinary - except that they were also brilliant writers.

I've never read Morley Callaghan before, something that, as a Canadian, I hate to admit. I can't say I thought the writing to be anything memorable but it was a memoir and I expect it will be different with his novels, which I am going to find and read eventually. To me the fascinating thing about this book is the look it gives you into the writing life, the personal lives of some well known writers, and life in Paris in 1929.  It's a rich experience, full of life, living and writing, and as you are a person who reads book blogs, I suspect you might like it too.


 

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